“Let’s all go and get massacred together.”

The door under the staircase led to a low-ceilinged basement. Stopping halfway down the stairs, Kane opened his mouth and gazed around in wonder. The basement had been fitted out as a laboratory. The walls were plastered white, red bricks showing through in places, the floor a slab of concrete with deep cracks traveling the length of the room. A row of fluorescent lights, suspended from chains, ran down the centre of the room, throwing a cold white light across the benches, shelves and equipment. Pipes and electrical cables criss-crossed the room and led up through holes into the house.

“What’s all this about?” he asked the room as he finished his descent and stepped onto the concrete floor. He wrinkled his nose. There was a strong earthy smell about the place, mixed with bitter, mouldy and bleachy smells. The droning sound he’d heard at the front door was louder here.

“He mixes potions down here,” answered Dylan, who was next down the stairs.

“Wow,” breathed Arika as she caught her first glimpse of the basement. “This is amazing! Who would have thought –?” Her eye was caught by the shelves on the other side of the room. “What’s all that?” Brushing past them, she went to investigate.

“The guy on the hill must have helped him set up all this stuff. He couldn’t have done it by himself.”

“Snyder,” said Dylan. “Snivelling Snyder. He doesn’t do the physical stuff; he’s more like the 2IC. Wilfred’s got other henchmen to help around here.”

“Is that what he calls them?”

“They do the digging and heavy lifting.”

Kane stiffened. Snyder sounded like the type of weasel who’d run away the moment you said, “Boo,” but he hadn’t countenanced the possibility there may be other, more menacing helpers to contend with. “Are any of them here?”

Dylan sat with a groan on the step. “I don’t think so. He only calls them when he needs them. We’d know if they were around.” He glanced back up the rickety staircase. “They’re gorillas.”

“Thanks for telling me earlier, dude. Come on, we need to hurry this up.”

Crossing to the steel table in the centre of the room, Kane put his rifle down and inspected it. Long and rectangular, it had a tap and sink at one end, with hoses leading across the floor to the wall. He knew from crime TV what it was: an autopsy table. Near it were a long bench and two wooden chairs, along with another table that was tilted at a forty-five-degree angle. The wall opposite was fitted out with metal shelves filled with glass bottles and flasks, some containing pickled frogs, snakes and salamanders and body parts like eyes and tongues; others filled with liquids and plant material like herbs, fungi and woody sticks. Arika was lifting down bottles, peering closely at them, screwing up her nose at the contents.

“His henchmen must be crooks,” Kane muttered to himself. “He wouldn’t risk using anyone legit to bring down this crap and carry coffins and shit around.”

“This is ancient stuff,” Arika remarked over her shoulder. “Like, nineteenth century ancient. It probably belonged to Jonathon Dark.”

Kane glanced around. “I can’t see the book. Dylan?”

Dylan, having caught his breath, pushed himself to his feet and went to inspect the torture rack. It was hard to believe that only a few hours ago a terrified mummy had been strapped to it, its eyes pleading with him for help. The rack was now clean, the torture implements gone. Arlene, as well as being a dogged fighting machine, was also the perfect housekeeper.

“It’s not here.”

“How can you say that? You’ve hardly even looked around.”

“It’s never left out in the open. I hardly even saw it. Wilfred always worked from notes.”

“Damn it! It could be anywhere!”

“I told you that already.”

Kane went back and checked out the garbage piled under the stairs. It was mostly empty boxes, broken equipment and plastic containers filled with screwed-up paper, rags and used cleaning products. “Which is why we’re damn well looking everywhere. Now tell me: where’s the best place to start?”

“I dunno.” Glancing around, Dylan scratched his stubbled chin. “Though …”

Kane looked at him, and as usual got a little shock. Every time he saw his brother’s rumpled clothes and wrinkled face, something heaved in the pit of his stomach.

Dylan was squinting into the distance. “There was this one time Wilfred needed something from the Necromonicon and he stared at me as though I knew where it was. He didn’t go get it, though; just stood there tapping his foot. Then he sent me upstairs to get him tea.”

“And?” prompted Kane when Dylan stood staring into space.

“When I got back, the door up there was locked. They didn’t let me in for about twenty minutes, and then they had the book.”

“They?”

“Snyder was here.”

Kane’s mouth turned up at the corners. “There’s a secret hiding place down here.”

Arika screwed the cap on the jar of toads she’d been sniffing. “Did I hear someone say ‘secret hiding place’?”

“It must be where Waite keeps the Necro-book-thingy.”

She looked around. “Any ideas where it might be?”

“Dylan?”

Dylan shrugged.

“We should split up,” Arika said, replacing the jar on the shelf. “Take a wall each. There must be a safe – a switch or a latch or something.”

“You take that one,” Kane said to Dylan, nodding to his right. “Look for somewhere where there’s gaps between the bricks – or maybe something in the floor.” He smiled at them, feeling the buzz of anticipation in his chest. “The book is down here; I’d bet my life on it.”

“Kane …” began Dylan.

“I’ll look around these shelves,” said Arika, returning to the bottles and flasks.

“I’ll take this wall.”

“Kane,” Dylan said, louder this time.

Kane went up to him. “I know what you’re about to say, bro. But you told us you didn’t see it.”

“I wasn’t really looking.”

“You said it’s a big book. How could you miss a huge book that radiates evil energy?”

Dylan shook his head.

“And what about Waite always working from notes?”

“Unless he needed the power of the book.”

Kane didn’t want to hear any more. They needed to get on with the search. “Focus on the positive, Dylan. The book wasn’t there; you said so yourself. It must be here.”

“I –”

“And if it’s not here, at least we’ll know where the bastard is hiding it. And we’ll come back when he’s home and get it then.”

“Okay. I suppose you’re right.”

Kane punched his brother’s shoulder; gently, so he didn’t break any bones. “Listen, kid, we’re not gonna stop till you’re out of that disgusting body. I promise. Now we better get on with it, before Waite or some of his gorillas turn up.”

They searched every inch of the basement without success.

“This can’t be right!” Kane cried, so exasperated he was getting heartburn. He looked Waite’s body up and down, feeling his hatred rise, even though he knew it was his brother in those ill-fitting, old-man clothes. “You’re a weak old fossil. You use that damn book all the time. It’s gotta be somewhere easy to get to.”

He bit his thumb, thinking hard. Dylan said it took Waite or Snyder about twenty minutes to get the book, so maybe there was a hidden room down here, rather than a safe or secret compartment, which would only take a few minutes to open. He scanned the basement again. A hidden room would most likely open from a wall that faced into the house. That meant one of the walls on either side of the staircase.

In the corner of the basement opposite the stairs was a disused metal laundry basin, dented and rusty with neglect. Kane had checked in and around it earlier, to no avail, and now he went back for another look. The plug hole was choked with matted grey lint, dust and chips of plaster that had fallen from the ceiling. Though the rest of the laboratory was clean and tidy, this whole corner of the room was caked with dirt and grime. Above and below the basin were cracked white tiles; above them, a light fixture that was missing the fluorescent tube. A chain hung from the fixture, no doubt taking the place of a light switch. Kane fingered it. That was funny. He hadn’t noticed it before, but the last third of the chain was the only thing here not covered with dust. With a mounting sense of expectation, he tugged on it.

Machinery hummed in the wall. The laundry basin shuddered. As Kane stepped back, the entire tiled section of the wall – roughly a metre-and-a-half square – grated, jerked, then swung towards him on metal hinges, carrying with it the disused basin.

Smiling like a jester, he placed his hand on the wall, bent forward and peered into the darkness.

“What’s in there?” asked Arika, squeezing in next to him.

Five stone steps led down to an earthen floor. The rest of the room was too dark to make out anything. The room smelt as if rats had died in there.

“It’s our hidden room,” Kane said as Dylan joined them. “Told you, didn’t I? And there you were, about to give up and go home.” He felt around inside, but couldn’t find any light switch or dangling chain. “Is there a torch around here?”

“Yep,” said Arika, going back to the shelves. “Over here.” She returned with a small flashlight and a battery-powered lamp.

Taking the lamp from her, Kane reached out and dangled it in the darkness. The room was smaller than the basement, largely unfinished, with a dirt floor and walls built from rough-hewn stone blocks, mossy and discoloured, irregularly patched with concrete. The walls of the room were lined with furniture, all of it busted and dust-covered – but what had immediately captured the attention of both Kane and Arika was the enormous bronze plate in the centre of the floor.

“Whoa!” cried Arika, gripping his arm. “That looks like … It’s …”

“A trap door,” said Kane.

“It’s a trap door.”

Stepping into the room, Kane found the light switch. Yellow light flooded the room from a lone bulb that dangled from a thick black cord. The lamp no longer being necessary, he turned it off, placed it next to the wall, went down the steps and knelt beside the bronze plate. It was definitely a trap door, more than a metre in diameter. The top of the plate was moulded into the shape of an octopus, an archaic creature with a bulbous head and a single, half-closed eye in its centre. Its tentacles divided the plate into five sections, each featuring an underwater theme. Two sections showed submerged mountains and steep ocean cliffs; the other three depicted underwater cities of stone and coral.

“Stinks down there,” commented Dylan from the doorway.

Kane placed his hand on the cold metal. “I hate to think what’s underneath this thing,” he said as Arika knelt next to him.

She traced the line of a tentacle with her finger. “I don’t recognise the artwork. It looks ancient. Atlantis theme, maybe. It might have come from a temple to Poseidon or Dagon or some other watery deity.” She tried to get her fingers under the edge of the plate.

“You’ll need a crowbar,” suggested Dylan, who was now standing over them.

“There must be a catch somewhere.”

Kane bent close to the dirt so he could examine the plate from the side. “Look at the end of that tentacle,” he said, pointing. “It’s not flush with the rest of the plate.”

Following the line of his finger, Arika reached over and pressed the raised tentacle. Once it made contact with the metal of the plate, a mechanical whirring began, the trapdoor trembled, then began to rise.

They all drew back and watched in amazement as the plate rose on a metal lever and locked with a shudder in a vertical position.

Its opening released more of the horrendous stink. Kane and Dylan stepped back, hands pressed against their nose, but Arika wasn’t to be deterred. Switching on her flashlight, she pointed it down the well. “Definitely smells like something climbed down there and died,” she observed.

The smell, strong as it was, soon dissipated. Kane, who’d gone back up the steps to retrieve the lamp, returned and held it over the well. “This is unbelievable,” he said. “It just gets weirder.”

Inside the well, a series of metal rungs led down the brick wall to what looked like a dirt floor a few metres down.

“Can you see anything?” Kane asked, leaning further into the well with his lamp.

Arika nodded at him. “Are you thinking what I’m thinking?”

He stared at her, then turned to Dylan, who was standing close, sneering at him. It took him a second to remember the sneer was Waite’s natural expression and had nothing to do with how his brother was feeling. “You okay?” he asked, just to be sure.

Dylan’s expression didn’t change. “Do I look okay to you?”

Kane winced. “Sorry, man. You know what I mean. I hope.” Patting his shoulder, he tried to look confident. “We’ll find that book, Dylan. Whatever it takes. I won’t rest till that bastard is back in his stinking corpse … No offence, little brother.”

He glanced around. It was clear the book wasn’t hidden amongst the fragments of furniture that lined the walls. The well was the logical place to search next.

Placing the lamp on the ground, he said, “Okay, I’m going in.”

“I’ll be right behind you,” said Arika.

Kane stared into the well. He should have known that was coming.

“You two better stay here.”

He glanced at her and saw her face harden.

“I’m not a helpless little damsel like you seem to think,” she said, her eyes fixed on his. “I’m not sitting here like a spare tyre not knowing what’s going on down there.”

Kane shook his head. “I don’t think you’re helpless. You’ve proven you can handle yourself – more than once. But –” But there was no way he’d let a woman he barely knew climb down into God-knows-what, no matter how many secret agent skills her father had taught her. “I just need to go down and grab the book and come back as soon as I can. Fast in, fast out. The job doesn’t need two.”

“Who’s to say some of Waite’s henchmen aren’t down there, waiting in ambush? You should have back-up.”

“I don’t need someone around I need to rescue if there’s thugs waiting down there.”

That shut her up, though not in a good way.

After glaring at him a few seconds, she said with eyes narrowed, “Firstly, Mr Gates, I don’t need to prove anything to you or anybody else. And secondly, I’ll do what I damn well please.”

Don’t I know that! thought Kane, though he was smart enough not to say it out loud.

“You’re not leaving me here all by myself,” chipped in Dylan.

Kane sighed in frustration. “How you gonna climb down that ladder, bro? You can hardly walk.”

Dylan puffed out his puny chest. “If Wilfred can do it, so can I.”

“We’re wasting time, standing around arguing,” Arika pointed out. “Waite could come back any minute.”

“Fine,” huffed Kane. “I’m only the professional emergency services worker here. What would I know? Let’s all go and get massacred together.”

Dylan rubbed his liver-spotted hands together. “Sounds like a plan!”

Read Chapter 24: Below

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