Chapter 4: Breaking Down the House

Fredrick nudged me aside as he bent down in front of the cupboard closest to the kitchen's rear wall. While it was too dark to make out what he was doing, I heard a series of metallic clinks and then the sound of something on wheels moving, so it wasn't difficult to figure out what was going on. The entrance to the root cellar was beneath one of the sections of the counter. Clever. And not just that, it must have been professionally designed too, because I'd noticed nothing unusual when I'd scoped out the kitchen.

There was another clink and a barely audible squeak, then Fredrick reached up and grabbed my wrist. "Okay, come on," he whispered. "The first step is here. Go inside. Seal the latch, then follow the stairs down. Once you're in the cellar, find a good place to hide, stay there and be quiet."

"What about you? What are you going to do?" I asked, while Fredrick guided me to the hole in the floor. It was clear from his instructions he didn't intend to join me, and I couldn't bear the thought of being down there alone, waiting to be found. And that felt inevitable. It seemed Humbolt Sarker, or whoever he was, had vastly underestimated his enemies. My life as I knew it could well be measured in minutes rather than years, and I didn't want to spend the last of them alone in a cold, dark, musty subterranean room.

"Don't worry about me. I need to secure the cellar from this side."

"But Dad, I..."

"I know. Now get down there: we don't have much time." He started closing the trap door, forcing me down the stairs. I groped around in the dark until I found the latching mechanism and secured it. Like the rest of the cottage, the door was made out of wood, therefore completely useless. An axe or a sledgehammer would be able to smash through it with little trouble. Probably wouldn't even take a minute.

I crept down the stairs, extra cautious. I didn't want to trip and fall or knock anything over. As I ran my hands along the walls and shelves and the things on them, my dreams of a covert underground armory were dashed. This room was exactly as advertised: a cold storage cellar for food, not weapons or ammunition. I did a couple more laps of the small space just to be sure, but I found little of use. I grabbed a bottle from a well-stocked rack that was just a tiny bit taller than I was. Then I squeezed my way in behind it, careful not to send any of the other bottles crashing to the floor. It was a tight fit, but I managed. Once I'd gotten as far back as I could, I slid myself down the earthen wall until I was sitting with my knees pressed tight to my chest. I clutched the bottle in front of me. I wouldn't be able to leap up and attack my pursuers, but I might be able to incapacitate a few of them by knocking the shelf over at just the right moment.

As I sat there, willing my hands to stop shaking, I considered cracking open a bottle and taking a swig – the shape of the one in my hands suggested they contained wine. Even though I didn't drink, it was tempting: did I want to die having never tasted alcohol? When held up against all the other things I hadn't tried yet – driving a car, living away from home, sex – it seemed so inconsequential. I never wanted to be someone who had a bunch of regrets at the end of her life, but I also expected I'd have a lot more time for living.

Maybe, if I had known this was coming, I would have done more last summer than just make-out with Pete Sakis in the backseat of his brother's car. At the time, I'd pushed his roving hands away because I wasn't in any particular hurry to ditch my virginity. It's kind of funny how worried I used to be about STIs and getting pregnant. That was nothing compared to this.

As I'd slunk down the stairs, I'd heard Fredrick rolling the counter back into place and sealing the latches on his side. He moved around for another minute or two, then nothing. All was silent inside and out.

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