I sighed at hearing Uncle Harry's easy advice to simply pop out if the mine didn't feel like it was right to me. His soothing tones on the cell phone made me feel close to him despite the distance. I was nearly a Popsicle in the middle of a new Michigan snowstorm while Uncle Harry was cozy in his Southern California lair. My vampire Uncle wasn't above pushing me when I needed it but right now I wasn't so sure that I needed to be pushed. I was somewhat worried about my latest find.
He heard my unspoken concerns and continued, "Emma, I know you want to go down into the salt mines and explore whatever it was you found, but if you are worried it isn't safe, then don't go."
Uncle Harry tended to simplify things at times. Being a vampire for centuries gave him a long view in most things, I'd discovered over my years spent with him. He didn't speak of his past much but there were plenty of stories out there told by other vampires and supernaturals that let me know he wasn't impulsive, and could and had waited to dish out punishments due in the vampire world.
"Uncle Harry, I know that. I just have read far too many conflicting tales. The tunnels in the salt mines are over a hundred years old -- that's pretty much a fact, no argument there. They travel under Michigan, Ohio, New York, West Virginia, Pennsylvania and even Ontario for like over a hundred and seventy thousand square miles! Anywhere from a thousand to twelve hundred feet beneath Michigan was where the tunnels were dug. Of course not before a few humans lost their lives."
I shook my head trying to clear the images chasing around my thoughts knowing that Uncle Harry couldn't see me. I took a deeper breath and added, "The mines were pretty much one of the unknown riches in the area. Salt was worth more than gold at times. The miners traveled to their jobs nose to nose in smelly elevators down the shaft to the mines. From everything I read the mines were actually not bad places to work. Other than the dead mules and donkeys stuffed in the unused corridors of the mine."
"What?" came Uncle Harry's quick reply.
Shivering as more of the snow-laden winds found their way inside the living room of the small house I'd rented downriver outside Detroit, near the very tunnels I'd been researching, I burrowed into my blanket and fed him the facts I'd found in my research, "Seems like only people and salt went up to the surface from the tunnels. All sorts of bits and pieces were sent down to be assembled into the equipment needed to mine, they even lowered mules and donkeys to do the hard labor, but the only things that made it back up were humans and salt."
Uncle Harry asked, "What happened to the animals and machinery?"
Which pretty much summed up one of my many questions.
"From the stuff I read the all the machinery is still down there and probably being used by the newest owners of the mines. The animals once they died were abandoned and shoved over into unused areas where they stayed. One old man's diary said that he'd seen the dead animals propped up against the walls looking nearly alive. The salt and the cool temperatures under ground preserved the animal fur and all. It haunted him until his dying day."
All too easily I could picture the white walls of the salt mines with a donkey tilted against the crystal formations, with their dark coats dusted with the puffs of pulverized salt that they had toiled their hearts out moving beneath the city. I shivered but it wasn't from the chill throughout the house but the images chasing my thoughts. I heard Uncle Harry take in a deep breath then asked, "So what is pulling you down there?"
"Answers about me." I admitted with a catch in my throat. He knew I felt isolated by my very nature and in all my years he'd never pushed me about that -- not that he didn't push me, he just didn't push me personally about how I felt being what I was. I don't know that he even knew what I was in the supernatural world. He just accepted me for who I was -- ditzy and silly and at times a tad immature. I didn't deny my past and he teased me when he wanted, but never about where I was from or what I exactly was. For that alone he had my undying loyalty.
"Okay, Emma, what can I do to help?"
His voice was calming and I sucked in some cold air and said, "Nothing, just get my back if I need help."
A soft sigh from him and then, "I always will. Now should I send Riley to keep you company?"
I laughed and said, "No, I wouldn't want his furry toes to get cold."
He said, "I'll make sure to tell him you said that."
"Fine by me. Not like he would even want to deal with the tunnels. I heard he was a tad claustrophobic." I let my smile coat my words over the slightly crackling lines. The storm blew gusts of icy wind and rattled the panes of the front window.
"Where'd you hear that?" He didn't deny the statement, I noticed.
"The internet is a lovely thing." I grinned.
Supernatural creatures were slow to embrace new technology. They had seen the rise and fall of 'modernization' over centuries, time and time again, therefore most of them tended to wait before embracing anything new. Uncle Harry wasn't phobic about technology, witness my new cell phone with more bells and whistles and tweets than I knew how to use. But somehow I doubted he googled himself or his friends.
Honestly, I hadn't googled the werewolf either, but when I had taken a peek at the latest wanted dead posting on me on one of the more colorful supernatural pages -- sort of like the Supernatural Enquirer -- I saw there was a link to 'where the weres are' teaser. Soon I found myself reading a nasty bit of gossipy prose that included some first names of semi-famous werewolves and their 'pet' peeves. The bit about 'nothing gets Riley riled like being stuck inside too close for comfort' spots caught my interest and I knew from some of the rest of the paragraph it was Uncle Harry's werewolf buddy. There were others named that I didn't know in the following paragraphs that I skimmed in case more was said about Riley.
"So the salt mines are a tight set of tunnels?" Uncle Harry sounded skeptical. Maybe he'd taken the time to look up the information about the mine, chased through my thoughts.
I confessed, "Not the mines per se but the thousand feet of elevator travel could prove to be a bit awkward when he furred out. Not that the new owners give guided tours like the old days." This much was a relief to me because it meant I wouldn't be running into thirty-plus school kids on a field trip to see the good old salt mines beneath their city. Had it been twenty or thirty years ago, there was a constant flow of guided tours; from what I'd read, the odds would have been far greater that there could be a chance I'd be noticed if I popped in and out. Kids weren't oblivious to unusual or strange things, but actively interested in figuring out mysteries. Children found the supernatural perfectly natural until they transitioned into lemming sorts of humans that littered the landscape. Besides I'd had my fill of guided tours for a while after the Indonesian incident.
Some of what I thought filtered through the lines, and Uncle Harry first chastised me for mentioning Riley's 'condition' on an open phone line, "Magpie, you know perfectly well Riley doesn't like you to talk about how hairy he is. He thinks you are making fun of him. Genetics aren't something you can control, you know. That five o'clock shadow isn't something he likes, and he knows it makes him look like a thug."
I hung my head recalling my off the cuff remark about furring out and said, "Sorry Uncle Harry, but Riley teases me all the time."
I knew that I sounded like a petulant child but at least I'd stopped yapping about werewolves on an open line. Uncle Harry wasn't done, "And not all tours are a bad idea. So you're planning on getting a private tour then?"
His not-so-subtle way of asking me when I was going to head down to the salt mines was pretty typical. I hesitated and then added, "Something like that. There are a few more bits of information I want to research more before I visit."
That was the best I could say. I mulled over the facts and wanted to tell all my concerns Uncle Harry but not enough to compromise the phones anymore than I just had. Uncle Harry filled me in on a few minor bits of local news that had nothing to do with supernaturals or his true job but enough nonsense to distract anyone who had possibly been listening into our call. I hated that I'd slipped with my furred comment but didn't see how to fix it other than too keep on answering and participating in bantering about nothing important. Soon I hung up, feeling better, but not sure I was going to risk the trip anytime soon. I knew I'd have to make sure to pop down in the middle of the night to give Uncle Harry a chance to help me if something went wrong.
It was the possibilities of something going wrong that kept me gnawing on my lower lip while looking over the copies of diagrams and stories I'd collected. Nobody was forcing me to go -- that was true -- but the sense that there was something important about me in those miles and miles of caves and tunnels kept plucking at my soul.
The Native Americans had known about the salt beneath Mother Earth. They used the salt springs to heal and warm themselves around the region. I didn't find any tales of the various bands and tribes actually trying to dig down to find the source of the salt but then it wasn't like a thousand feet of digging was something done with an axe head and determination. There weren't even any recorded tales from the older anthropologists in the early part of the last century. I discovered a treasure trove of anthropologists who had made it their life's work to record as many tapes of ancient stories before the Native American elders passed on -- there were stories and religious mysteries of their tribe -- but nothing about the salt mines or even if they knew there were such mines.
What I had found that caught my attention wasn't in the past month, but a few years ago. At the time I'd jammed the copy of a copy into a drawer and pretty much forgot about it. I was constantly coming across scraps of potential information about my pretties and other fun little corners of the earth stuffed with treasures. I prioritized them by my current interests and what sort of difficulty I would have getting in and out. I wasn't trying to steal from anyone, I just liked the chase and I really liked when it was something lost. I'd been known to drop items off at local museums or colleges just for kicks and giggles.
The letter had been stuck to the back of a different bit of nonsense that I'd long forgotten. When I had arrived back in Florida after my return to the United States to the news that a hurricane was aiming for the coast, I decided to scan some of my miscellaneous notes in case the storm actually hit and tore apart my place. I'd been working on scanning and saving offsite documents every time I got a chance or a major warning reminded me. I read things long forgotten and found the letter. I was intrigued.