Everybody was there, the ones Jake had loved, still loved and never dreamed of loving for the 50 of his 68 years he had lived there. Ever since landing in town as an unemployed teenage hitchhiker looking for a job and a life, he had fought with them and worked with them. Three had become special to him, still were.
Now almost all of them, almost all of the people who had been the heart of this town, the heart of his life in this town, had turned out to celebrate—or if not to celebrate then to mourn—the inaugural batch of tourists just arriving on the charter bus that had driven them from east Texas all the way to Cavetown.
While the crowd of several hundred watched with scowls and smiles, the big touring bus lined with plate glass windows pulled into the back of the parking lot reserved for buses. The smaller front lot was almost full of the locals’ pickups and campers and sedans, but most of the acres of gray pavement in back, carved from prairie dirt with grandiose optimism only last month, stood at least for the moment as bare and empty as the Sahara.
The tourists gratefully clambered off the bus after the long, boring ride from Houston, across the wind-blasted emptiness of the Texas panhandle and eastern New Mexico, the sparsely populated rural counties that New Mexicans called Little Texas.
More than half the crowd broke into applause. A few let out a cheer. A few others glowered sourly, for hating Texans was as much a community pastime as backyard barbecues. But for all of them, there was a sense of relief from pressure, as of pent-up air hissing form a punctured tire. This day had been a long time coming.
“The first of many,” Mayor Joe Gonzales gloated as he watched the line of tourists stretch all the way from the bus door to the ticket window. “Those Texas tourists are gonna make us rich.”
“Yeah, we did it,” Town Councilor Frank Cumbres chimed in. “They said this town was domed to die, but now look at it.” The editor, standing next to the mayor, looked. All he could see was the vast almost empty parking lot and, in front of it, a hole in the ground. There was at least supposed to be a big sign, but it had not yet arrived form the city. “Somebody’s gonna catch it for that screwup,” the mayor had muttered when he saw the empty space prepared for the big but absent sign.
The tourist line split into two branches, one for the stairs down into the cavern, the other for the elevator. This was a predominantly elderly crowd and the elevator line was by far the longer of the two.
A heavy woman with blue-tinted hair walked up to the mayor. “I just want to know if it’s safe,” she said. ‘I’ve never been in a cave. Not any kind of cave. Let alone one with ghosts and a dead body.”
“It’s absolutely safe, ma’am,” Joe told her. “We make sure no harm comes to our visitors. The body has been dead for a very very long time. The cavern is well lit. The walkway down is paved and easy, but if you are worried, just ride the elevator. It takes only a few minutes to go all the way down that way.”
“But what about the ghost? That’s what’s got me worried the most.”
Joe winked at Frank. “Well, I can’t guarantee what a ghost will or won’t do, ma’am, but I can tell you this is a real friendly ghost who’s never hurt anyone. Not once. He’s not even threatening. He’s a real cute little fellow and he just loves visitors,” He winked again. “Especially Texans.”
“Have you seen the ghost yourself?”
“Then how do you know he’s so cute and harmless?”
“Well, that’s what I hear from everybody who has seen him. Nobody’s ever had any trouble. And remember, even though yours is the first busload of tourists, people have been going down into the cavern for thousands of years.”
“That’s why you’ve got a dead body down there?” The question came from a different kind of tourist, the only young woman in the group, Frank noted. A handsome man with an assertive, self-conscious mustache, he had an eye for women, an eye they often reciprocated. This tourist was dressed provocatively in an extremely short skirt and a T-shirt that seemed to have nothing beneath it. What in the world, he wondered, was she doing with this group?
“Yes, indeed, honey,” Frank said, turning happily away from the elderly woman, “that’s exactly why we got this body. Who knows, over these thousands and thousands of years there could have been a lot more bodies. We just haven’t found them yet.” He stuck out his hand and introduced himself. As the woman shook it, she gave her name as Eloise Henderson.
“You seem to know a lot about this place,” she said. Was she flirting? Frank optimistically thought so.
“Sure thing. I’ve been working on this project here for a year getting ready for the tourists. And I am the spelunker on the project. I first climbed down into that hole five years ago. I was the one who found that body.”
Eloise stared at him. “Well, that’s my profession, climbing down into holes. I’m also a spelunker.” He stared back. She noted that he had the annoying habit of talking not to her face but to her tits.
“Of course there is a dead body, and the guide will tell you all about that,” Frank said to her back as she turned away and headed toward the cave.
“That woman’s trouble,” Frank muttered to no one in particular.