Chapter 2.2

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My heart tried to jump out my throat. The door thumped. The knob turned the other way, more violently.

With a shuddery squeal the door burst open, Niko's shoulder leading the rest of him out.

"Stuck," he said, jiggling the knob. "Just like the one upstairs. Oh, goddammit. I spilled my coffee."

We looked down at the new dark stain on the carpet. He licked droplets from his fingers, examined a candy-caned sweater cuff critically. "Thank Christ it didn't stain the cashmere."

"That is not cashmere," I said, rolling my eyes. "Hey. Don't wander off on me like that."

I didn't want to admit how spooked I'd been, and thought I'd done a good job hiding it, but of course he knew me better than that. He stared into me and seeing those emerald eyes full of concern was enough to melt my fear, transmute it into something infinitely better.

"Okay," I laughed. "You're not in trouble. Just stay close, yeah?"

"Sure, and sorry, but hey." His eyes had a mischievous glint. "Come check it out. I found some stairs."

The new stairs led down into darkness. From the top we could see about twenty or thirty steps down before things got shadowy, and enough of the shadows to tell the stairs kept descending for a while after that.

Niko had been excited to show me, but now he perched uneasily on the top step. I got out my flashlight and switched it on, pointing down. "Come on. Maybe there's some answers down there." He still looked hesitant. I put on my straightest face and my best P.I. voice. "Don't you want to get... to the bottom of this?"

"Mmm." He frowned in concern. "I just wouldn't want your boyfriend to get jealous, me spending all this time down here with you."

This was a little joke of his. I didn't have a boyfriend.

But he flicked on his own light, waved it down. "After you, amigo."

There were maybe a hundred steps. Other than that, and the fact that we were lighting our way with flashlights, they seemed like any other stairs in a house built during the Carter administration and slowly lapsing into senility. That same damn carpet. They must have bought up the whole factory.

The wall sconces were still there, but no longer lit. Still no light switches anywhere.

When the stairs finally gave out, it was into another hallway, nearly identical to the ones above. This one felt a bit bigger, and the carpet a darker shade, looking more brown now, though maybe both impressions were a trick of the flashlights. Funny how much light influences your perception of spaces, of shapes. Colors. Everything, really.

More rooms opened off this hall, though these had more variety. A few doors were locked, which we hadn't encountered on the upper level. Some of the rooms seemed like bedrooms: a few even had old bed frames and mattresses in them. I looked in vain for colored tacks stuck to the wall with ripped corners of posters still attached, or even a crumpled gas station receipt. I mean it wasn't like the place was sterile. Another room had a drain in the floor with stains running up to two big utility hookups on the wall, and the faint smells of dust and moths and yellowing wallpaper glue were everywhere. What was missing was anything personal.

The weirdest room, though, was the kitchen. It was too big for a kitchen, for starters, and had too much stuff in it: too many ovens hookups, too much haphazard ceiling ventilation, red-handled water valves everywhere, and a dozen jumbled stove tops with holes where the burners should be. There were parts of appliances but no whole ones: bundles of wiring, even a kitchen sink. Niko tried the faucet and we both were startled when water came out. It was like a half-assembled restaurant kitchen with all the equipment jumbled together, rather than a row of stoves here, a row of dishwashers there.

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