“Someone’s coming up.”
Morgan and Henri watched as Sparks pressed the raised tentacle and stepped back. The bronze plate whirred, shook, lifted to an upright position. Below was the well, just as Arika had described.
“There’s that stink,” commented Henri, waving her hand under her nose.
Morgan leaned over the well. A series of metal rungs led down the brick wall into black nothingness. It was the perfect point of defence for whoever or whatever was down there. Also, the perfect place for a trap.
He waved his hand and two soldiers approached with halogen lights. They arranged them on either side of the well, then stepped back. The lights exposed the entire well, from the ancient brickwork down to the bare earth floor and the beginnings of the subterranean stairs.
“What do you think?” he asked over his shoulder.
Henri peered over the edge. “Do we have a choice?”
He blew out his cheeks. “I’d like nothing better than to seal this up and blow the whole place to kingdom come. For Cleo. We’d have one big bonfire and then go home knowing it was a job well done. But that’s not my orders.”
She regarded him warmly. “Sam, you’re a good man. And I would guess an even better soldier. I’m ready when you are.”
He nodded at her, then turned his nod to the lieutenant. Sparks motioned the closest soldier towards the well.
The soldier obeyed like a machine, hoisting his rifle on his shoulder, climbing over the edge and beginning his climb down the metal rungs.
Sparks motioned the next soldier, who followed the first, her face taut with concentration on the task ahead.
They huddled around the well and watched as the two soldiers descended. When they reached the earthen floor, the lead officer raised a hand and they entered the stairwell.
Morgan cocked his ear. He thought he could hear the soft tread of their boots on stone, fading into silence. Then something began happening down there: a shuffling sound and animal noises like you might hear at an agricultural show.
Sparks lifted his radio. “Taylor, Krastev, can you hear me?”
The only response was the crackle of static.
“Do you read me?”
A gunshot rang out, echoing up the well, quickly followed by screaming. More shots. More screaming.
“Taylor! Krastev!” Sparks dropped his radio and leaned over the well. “Taylor! Krastev!”
In response came an animal whimpering. Then something sounded on the stairs. Clomp – clomp – clomp, accompanied by a scraping noise.
“Someone’s coming up,” breathed Henri.
There was movement in the darkness. As they watched, Krastev’s face materialised, bloodied and terrified. She was having trouble walking, leaning against the bricks for support. Grabbing the first of the rungs, she began ascending. Each step was slow and agonising, and Morgan could see she had sustained an injury to her right shoulder and left leg: her uniform was torn and blood was dripping onto the ground below.
Spinning around, Sparks began descending the rungs. Halfway down, he met Krastev and reached a hand towards her. As their fingers met, something else emerged from the darkness of the stairwell: a bear – or jackal – or gorilla; a lumbering beast with brown shaggy hair, long arms and fat toothy snout. Sparks froze; Krastev looked down and screamed.
The monster began climbing the rungs.
“Faster!” yelled Sparks, pulling at Krastev’s wrist.
But she only made one more rung before a hairy paw reached out, grabbed her ankle and jerked her down.
She stared up the well in terror. The monster pulled her again. With help from Sparks, she managed to grab the next rung, but the monster seemed intent on not letting her climb any further. Sparks groaned under the strain of her weight as he tried to drag her up.
“Out of the way!” cried Morgan as he aimed his rifle past Sparks and Krastev at the huge hairy body.
Sparks flattened his body against the wall at the same time Morgan shot at the mass of hair. The bullets went in with no discernible reaction. He shot again, this time aiming at the monster’s arm, but still it refused to let go – refused even to acknowledge it had been shot.
Sparks resumed his struggle to lift Krastev. But the thing was not about to let go. Tiring of the game, it pulled her down with a series of jerks that loosened her grip on the metal rung and strained Sparks’ fingers as he fought to keep hold of her wrist. Krastev looked at him with resignation, almost a look of apology, mouthed something, and then, without a further sound, dropped to the earthen floor.
The monster fell on her, took her neck in its jaws and dragged her backwards down the stairs.
Sparks scrambled up the rungs.
“Behind you!” cried Morgan.
Sparks didn’t waste time looking down. He made the last few rungs in a matter of seconds.
As he jumped into the basement room, Morgan and Henri stared in horror at the monster coming towards them. It was breathing fast, making a staccato noise in its throat that sounded like a snigger. Its black eyes shone like onyx, its snout dripped with snot, its white teeth were fixed in what looked like a smile. Its curved nails clinked on the rungs and a foul animal smell rose into the room as it ascended.
“Close it!” yelled Morgan, pulling Henri back. “Now!”
The lieutenant was already onto it. Leaning his body weight on the trapdoor, he rode it down, and Morgan and Henri leapt on it and stood gaping at each other while the foul thing that had been crawling towards them howled and thumped in frustration at the underside of the bronze plate.
In another house, another trapdoor flew open. The black-haired boy who’d pushed it up bobbed down, then a few moments later reappeared with a lantern and climbed the steps and into the basement. Dressed in black clothes and white sneakers, carrying a shoulder bag, a backpack and the lantern, Wilfred stood surveying the room.
Sighing heavily, he placed the lamp on the cracked concrete floor, crossed to the bottom of the stairs and switched on the light. “Well, well, Snyder, what hi-jinks have you been up to?” he asked, glancing around the room.
The basement was fitted out as a laboratory, an almost exact replica of his own. There was even a torture table in the middle of the room – though unlike his, this one was filthy; Snyder hadn’t bothered cleaning up the blood. In fact, the whole room was filthy. There was a row of cages along the back wall, with disgusting brown straw on the floor, chains on the walls and slop buckets Wilfred didn’t dare look in. The smell was almost unbearable.
The basement was in disarray, like a fight had taken place. The doors to the cages were hanging off their hinges, chairs and tables were overturned, shelves had been torn down and glass flasks lay smashed on the floor. In one corner, at the end of a bench, a Bunsen burner lay upended and the fire had burnt the table. Smoke stains went all the way up the wall.
When Wilfred spotted a familiar book on a bookshelf, he went to investigate. “There’s my Lexicon Antigua,” he said. “And Johnson’s Theologorum. I’ve been looking all over for that! You thieving snipe! I bet half that equipment is mine too!”
He stood puffing in anger, the feeling of betrayal dizzying. Simon he could understand – he’d always been a thieving piece of slime – but who would have thought snivelling Snyder would be so brazen? And stupid. He patted the bandages on his stomach to bring his mind back to his mission. “I’ll deal with you later,” he warned his absent henchman and, collecting his things, went up the stairs to the house.
Kenny’s house wasn’t in a much better state than the basement. It was a small house, with small rooms and a low ceiling. The dark wooden beams were so low, Wilfred had to stoop to avoid hitting his head (a problem he’d rarely had in his own stunted body). Boxes and clothes and rubbish covered the furniture and floor. A broken window had been boarded up. There were dark smears all over the walls.
“Slob,” he said dismissively; “disgusting, thieving slob,” and went outside.
The most noticeable thing about the yard was the number of vehicles there: cars, motorcycles, vans, a butcher’s truck. Most of them were rusted and in pieces, and there were parts strewn about the yard. Wilfred looked around. It appeared Snyder had a side job. He wondered how he found the time to buy bombs and sell spare parts – then realised he didn’t need to buy them. In the same way he stole bodies and sold their parts to whoever was willing to pay, he had a sideline selling whatever he could appropriate from his victims.
“Stinking thief,” said Wilfred, though this time there was a note of admiration in his voice.
Standing in the dead garden, wind blowing hair in his face, he stared in the direction of his farmhouse. It wasn’t visible from here, but he was convinced the military operation had breached the second basement by now. That Gates fool and his whore would have told the army everything. Except they didn’t know everything. Smirking, Wilfred wondered whether they’d found his little surprises yet. He couldn’t hear any gunshots or explosions, so it seemed not.
“Only a matter of time,” he said, his words carried to the sky by the wind. A shame he wouldn’t be there to see it, but he had more important things to do while the idiot soldiers were screaming and dying.
Hoisting his bags higher on his shoulder, he began trudging up the hill.