It was a family camping trip to the Jennings family's favorite camping site, high in a remote area of the Ozark Mountains. It began, as each of their previous trips had begun, with wonderful weather, family togetherness, and a sense of adventure. It would end with the kidnapping of Doctor John Jennings's family, and his own flight into the forest to save himself from certain death.
John fled into the unknown wilderness of the Ozarks, moving steadily to the northwest in hope of coming across a road, or perhaps, with any luck, a town. What he finally came across was the home of Cordell Heartley, a recluse spelunker, living sometimes in his cabin, and at other times in his caves. Finding Cordell would lead John into the adventure of his life; to the discovery of an illegal, covert military operation, known as The Threef Project.
Barnes & Noble.com
C.H. Foertmeyer Fiction
Cordell looked around his dimly lit surroundings. He seemed to be in a small offshoot of the main cave, the only light being what filtered in from there. He assumed he was inside Morgan Ridge, although he really had no way of knowing that for sure, and as it turned out, he had little time to think about it.
"You awake yet?" Robbins asked, entering Cordellís little prison.
Cordell didnít give Robbins the courtesy of an answer.
"Well, awake of not, General Davenport wants to see you, General. What the hell is your name, anyway?"
Cordell looked up at Robbins, and replied, "Cordell Heartley, Captain, US Army Rangers, retired. And you are?"
"I see that on your shirt. Gotta first name, Robbins?"
"D.E. Thatís it, I go by D.E."
"Well, D.E., do you know what the Threef Project is all about? I do, and I can tell you itís over, and heads are going to roll. If you donít want yours rolling along with the rest, youíd better start working with me, instead of against me. The Arcola has already sailed, and by now the Coast Guard is swarming all over her."
"Yeah, yeah. Tell it to the general. I just follow orders."
"Did your orders include killing an innocent woman, and her two kids?"
"Nope. I donít know anything about that. My priority was you, and I grossly underestimated you. It wonít happen again."
"So what happened to my friendís wife and kids then?"
"Where is my friend?"
"You sure ask a lot of questions, donít you, Heartley?"
"Just what needs asking. So, where is he?"
"Heís in our infirmary. Our medical officer thinks he has a bad concussion. He hasnít woke up from the wreck yet. He said thereís a chance he may even be comatose. General Davenportís in with him now, and thatís where weíre going too. Come on, get up."
Robbins pulled a knife from its sheath, and cut the rope binding Cordellís feet together. Cordell held out his bound hands, and smiled, but Robbins put his knife away, and said in reply, "Right, Ranger. I ainít stupid."
He led Cordell out of the small chamber, and into a long passageway, the light growing brighter, as they walked along. Just before they reached the main cavern, Robbins cautioned Cordell about the wood plank, laid across a stream that cut through this corridor.
"Careful up ahead, Heartley. The plank tends to tip right. Stay to the left, if you donít want a mighty cold bath."
Robbinsís caution kicked Cordellís mind into gear. Could that be the stream that flowed to the main cave system? If so, he knew it went under rock just above the lower level. How far did it remain under rock? Could he hold his breath that long? Would he have to hold his breath the whole way? Might there be places where the ceiling rose, at least enough to breathe? Did it matter?
He knew that he was probably never going to get away from Robbins any other way. He had been trained to fight and kill, just like him. And, what of Davenport? Once Davenport knew what he knew about the Arcola, heíd probably do away with both John and him. Dead men donít talk.
He reached the plank Robbins had warned him about, and stepped carefully onto the left side of it, feigning concern for remaining upright, and not going into the drink. About halfway across, he stopped, and looked down. Moving pretty swiftly here, he thought. Maybe, just maybe. The stream was flowing in the right direction, and downward at a relatively steep angle. MayĖbe. He looked back to see Robbins waiting for him to cross, before stepping onto the plank himself. Cordell tipped to the right, as if loosing his balance and the plank tipped, tossing him into the cold water. As he hit, his thoughts were on the two things that could go wrong. If the tunnel was too long, he could kiss his ass goodbye, and if it narrowed to the point he could no longer fit through it, he could never work his way back upstream in time to save himself. It was a gamble, at best, but one he was willing to take.
"Hey!" he heard Robbins yell. Then, he took a deep breath, and went under.
Before he reached the shelter of the tunnel the stream flowed through, he heard the zip of several bullets ripping through the water to his side. He kicked furiously, trying to add speed to his downward movement below the surface of the stream. All light was now absent, as he entered the water-filled channel he must go through on one breath, or perish. He kept his tied hands running along the ceiling, hoping they would find air above him, but for nearly three minutes now, they had not, and his lungs felt as if theyíd explode. Suddenly, after four minutes, and at the very end of his endurance, his hands lost contact with the ceiling. He shot up, as fast as he could manage, and gasped for air in a small pocket where the ceiling had fallen into the stream. It had not come too soon. He braced himself against the flow of the stream, lingering there, breathing in the cool, blessed air, thinking, Thank God.
Knowing he couldn't stay here forever, yet not wanting to go through that experience again, he stayed in the small, dark sanctuary, breathing deeply. His motivation to move came in the form of Robbins, popping up next to him, gasping for air. He couldn't see him, but he didn't need to see, to know who it was who had joined him in this small pocket of life. Cordell dove under, immediately, heading downstream again.