Chapter 8.2

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The stairs descended down the side of the house. There was a door at the bottom. He opened it and went inside. After closing and locking the door he re-lit his lamp, revealing a space cluttered with furniture coated in dust. Cobwebs traversed the roof beams. A scythe stood like a vulture in a corner, and a bellows leaned against the hearth, its leather bag rotted away. A mummified mouse stared emptily from beside a massive, greasy vise.

Although it hadn't been obvious from the doorway, when Nick ventured deeper into the cellar he discovered that it was L-shaped. There was even more clutter around the corner. Dusty tables and chairs were stacked to the ceiling. A huge wardrobe bulged ominously, as if something was growing inside it. A semi-circular niche was built into the far wall. The niche contained a carven face, that of either a lion or a man – it was unclear which. Nick's first thought was that it was an old altar to some pagan god. He had heard of such things. On closer inspection he found a lead pipe hidden inside the man-lion's mouth, and realised it was a fountain. There was a grate in the floor through which the water had once poured. He wondered if it had been outside once, before the house and cellar had existed; the wall was of red brick rather than sandstone, and clearly belonged to an older building.

There was a gentle rush of warm air from below. Nick lit a match and dropped it between the bars of the grate. It fell about a body's length, and he caught a glimpse of a brick wall and a tunnel leading away towards the street before the match winked out. His curiosity sated, he returned to the cellar door, but froze with his hand on the knob.

There were voices at the top of the stairs.

Nick snuffed out the lamp. He stood for a moment in the dark, his heart racing.

Now there were footsteps on the stairs. He retreated from the door. As he reached the back wall he heard the door rattle and the handle turn, and a mutter from outside as they realised it was locked.

He glanced under the bench, but it was too exposed. He didn't want to risk trying to open the wardrobe, which was probably full anyway. The drain? He felt his way back to it through the darkness, placed the lamp on the ground, and felt around on the floor for the iron grate. The men outside were now working the lock. It seemed they had no key. He hoped they weren't half as fast with a lock as he was.

The grate was in three pieces, so should not have been heavy, but the first piece he tried didn't budge, nor did the second. He wrenched desperately at the middle piece; the clatter as it swung unexpectedly up was masked by the crash of the cellar door bursting open. From the doorway a blade of moonlight shone into the cellar, sparkling with motes of airborne dust.

Shadows moved on the back wall. A match was struck; this was followed by the steadier, strengthening glow of a lanthorn.

Nick slid down into the shaft, then reached up for the lamp and pulled it down after him. He stood at the bottom and looked up. He could touch the grate with his fingertips, but only just. He put the lamp down and climbed back up the shaft, hanging onto the grate with one hand, reaching up through the gap and pulling the missing piece towards himself. As it eased into place the men reached the corner of the cellar.

"What's that?" one of them said.


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