Down the Rabbit Hole part 3 by Paty Jager

An hour after Dela said she knew where to find Tommy Joe, Scott was navigating his county SUV over rough terrain. “You’re sure he lives out here?”

“There it is!” Dela pointed to the right.

 He caught a glimpse of an old army tent before they dipped into another washout.

Scott weaved his vehicle between the chaparral, releasing the earthy musk of the plant and bouncing over rocks.

They rolled over a knoll and there was the camp. He felt as if they’d walked into an old newspaper ad for the gold rush of 1849. Not a single item looked less than a hundred years old.

Dela slipped out of the SUV and walked toward the banked fire ring. “Tommy Joe? Tommy Joe, it’s Dela Alvaro.”

Scott hurried to her side. She was a civilian he shouldn’t have brought along. But after bouncing over all the ground they did, he’d realized he would have never found the place on his own.

He watched the woman bend at her waist and feel the fire. “Cold.”

She straightened and scanned the area. “He was at Grandfather’s this morning. I saw him.” Dela listened. “I don’t hear his old burro either.”

“According to what Chief Dickson learned, Tommy Joe found the body when he was bringing the burro to your grandfather.” Scott grasped a pick and studied the pointed end. “This looks like it’s been used recently. See how shiny the half inch of the tip is?”

“I don’t doubt it’s been used. That’s all Tommy Joe does. He wanders around digging, looking for gold.” Dela walked over to the tent.

Scott hurried in front of her. He grabbed the edge of the flap and flipped it back. Only the stench of unwashed body, bedding, and supplies were inside.

“Maybe he’s out digging.” Scott strode alongside the tent, his gaze on the ground. “This looks like a trail.” He led the way along the path.

They came to a small gulch that had once held a stream. The trail went down into the stream bed.

“Do you think he’s working this dried-up stream bed?” Dela asked.

 “We won’t know until we look.”

Scott started down the five-foot incline. He glanced up at Dela. The July sun was hotter down in the gulley without a wisp of air stirring. He couldn’t read what she was thinking behind the sunglasses she wore. Making her navigate down the slope if she couldn’t, didn’t set right with him, but he was uncomfortable leaving her alone.

“Need a hand?” he offered, holding a hand up to her.

She looked down at him, then raised her head a fraction and pointed. “Down there about thirty feet, I saw something shiny.” Grasping his hand, she kept her gaze on a spot down the gulley. She slid one foot down into the dry stream bed while the other gave her motion.

Scott held onto her hand as they continued down the dried bed.

“There.” She pointed to what looked like a miniature train track disappearing into a tunnel in the side of the gulley.

“I’ll be damned.” Scott pulled out his phone. He took photos of the gulley and the opening before flipping on the flashlight app on the phone. Entering the tunnel, with the woman behind him, he bent over at the waist and walked about twenty feet into the cool, musty earth.

“I wonder how far it goes?” Dela murmured.

“We don’t have the equipment to find out. We need to find Tommy Joe and ask him why he was calling the victim.” Scott motioned to the woman to back out.

Once they were standing out in the sunshine, blinking at the bright light and replacing their sunglasses, Scott nodded up the stream bed. “Let’s go back to the camp and see if we can figure out where to find Tommy Joe.”

“We should have kept going to see if the tunnel went into the development.” Dela leaned on a rock in the side of the embankment.

“How close to the development is this stream bed?” Scott pulled out his phone and tried to get a signal. It was no use.

“I’d say less than fifty yards.”

“Really? That close?” He had an idea this tunnel may have something to do with the murder. Proving it could be a different matter. Maybe he did need to go back in and see how far the tunnel went. Scott studied Dela. Did he dare leave her out here alone? If Tommy Joe returned and he was the murderer, he might want to keep the tunnel a secret.

Instead of reentering the tunnel, he decided to call in backup. That meant going back to his vehicle and using the radio.

“I think it could be even closer,” Dela said, staring at the streambed.

“We’re going back to my vehicle. I’ll call in a couple more deputies.”

This could be what Tommy Joe was calling the investor about. He’d discovered gold on the building site and wanted to…what? Stop the building so no one discovered his mine?

Dela slid off the rock she’d been sitting on and walked over to a spot two feet in front of him. She bent at the waist. “Look!” The woman pointed at a space between two rocks.

Scott knelt and studied the area she’d indicated. Something shiny nestled between the two rocks. He took photos with his phone. Dela handed him a tissue. He picked up the silver piece of men’s jewelry. It was a cufflink monogramed with a F. The victim had been missing both cufflinks.

He shoved the piece of jewelry into a pocket. He hadn’t expected to find evidence. All of his equipment was in his vehicle.

“You need to get that to the Sheriff’s Office,” Dela said, hurrying ahead of him as fast as she could with the one less cooperative leg.

Scott passed her and held out a hand to help her up the five-foot embankment where the trail left the stream bed.

“Thanks.” Her tone sounded as if he’d just insulted her.

“Hey, you’d have helped me if you’d been the first to the top,” Scott said, wondering what branch of the military she’d been in.

“Yeah, sure,” she muttered.

At the vehicle, Scott started the engine to get the air conditioner going.

After bagging and tagging the cufflink, he grabbed the radio and asked for assistance at their location.

“Now what happens?” Dela asked.

“We sit in the cool vehicle and wait for assistance.” Scott shifted sideways. “What branch of the military were you in?”

She gave him a look that might have quelled a weaker man. “Marines.”

Continuing next week…

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