Chapter 13

Empty Husks

The final leg of the journey took them along a wide, weather-worn highway through the town of White Castle, past small markets and smaller houses, separated by wide tracts of freshly tilled fields. Ray turned off Route 1 near the local funeral parlor and followed a narrow, nearly washed-out road west for about 15 miles as the farmland gave way to thick forests of willow and tupelo trees tangled with thick mats of kudzu. They wound through a thick forest for a while, slipping around and over meandering branches of the Atchafalaya River and its innumerable tributary streams, before stopping at the edge of a wide clearing.

At the edge of the forest the road split out in three directions. The two side routes swung north and south before curving westward again, forming the outer border of a wide, roughly circular area dotted with piles of mining detritus, rusted equipment, and half-collapsed trailers. A rusted chain link fence encircled the yard along the inner edge of the road, broken at odd intervals by rolling gates and sections of fence that had been overgrown and pulled down by masses of kudzu vines, which were steadily invading the middle yard from the northern border. Directly ahead, the road cut through the center of the circle, past an open gate, and disappeared into the wide black mouth of the mine. Bright red caution signs surrounded the entrance to the mine, most of them defaced with dark slashes of spray paint and bright specks of scoured metal around bullet holes.

“Looks inviting,” Oliver quipped.

“Maybe for a grave robber like you.”

“I take offense to that,” Oliver said in a tone of mock indignation. “I haven’t stolen anything from a grave in years. Temples are my speciality. Temples and photographs.”

“And what about run down meth dens in Louisiana?”

“Hey, if you don’t want to go in, we can tell Ray to turn around and take us back to town. I think I saw a literal seafood shack back on Route 1. We’ll stop there, have some lunch with his nephew, then I can show you some of the photos I never published.”

“Sounds like a plan to me,” Ray quipped. “I’d take any three swamps over river trips over going down a mine.”

“You’re not going in the mine, Ray. Don’t worry. Take us in and park just outside the entrance.”

Ray kept complaining under his breath, but drove forward across the ring road, through the gate, and into the abandoned mine yard. He turned the truck around and parked near then yawning black entrance to the mine.

“I’ll call my nephew and see if I can find out why he ain’t here yet. Watch out for snakes if you go poking around.”

Oliver and Jeanne climbed from the truck and pulled their bags from the back. Jeanne extracted a small Maglite from her backpack and shone the light down the wide tunnel. The beam revealed a gently sloping roof of rusted corrugated steel supported by thick timbers of cedar wood that had gone gray with weathering and age. The road continued down into the mouth of the mine for at least fifty feet before the slope of the descending roof cut it off the view from outside the entrance.