This half-lit hole was as dismal and gloomy as the main rooms in the house were bright and immaculately kept. A set of, perhaps, eight or nine stone steps, situated opposite the external entrance, led up to a dilapidated wooden door that must have once been gleaming white, but which now bore, like liver spots on the back of a gnarled hand, a dozen or more tan patches where the paint had flaked away exposing the wood beneath. Boxes lay all around, some neatly stacked, others at unusual and gravity-defying angles where the damp air had seeped into the cardboard and weakened the integrity of those attempting to hold them up. The seemingly obligatory wine-rack stood against the wall to the left of the steps and held, in better days, around a hundred bottles, but which now contained only thirty to forty grimy examples of lesser vintages. Several paintings, or more precisely, their frames could be seen resting atop the sturdier and more well-balanced cartons, placed there, presumably, in an attempt to prevent damage from the mould-inducing moisture that would have certainly attacked them had they lain on the clammy concrete floor, though the fact that they were down here in the first place gave a good indication of how well they were regarded. One gentleman in particular, dressed in seventeenth century attire, was clearly disgusted at his fall from grace and had taken it upon himself to exhibit a look of distinct disdain for all eternity, even though he had attained a quite lofty perch for himself.
The remaining items, those that were visible, consisted of the accumulated detritus of several lifetimes: an age-bent fishing rod, a net and creel, a dust-dulled post horn, an old saddle and stirrups with a broken strap, a curiously-shaped chalice and, over by the foot of the mattress, a partially-covered French Rococo-style Chippendale desk from which two sets of tracks, carved into the dust, curved towards either end of the only available space in the centre of the room.
At the tracks’ termini were parked two ornate, lattice-backed chairs, Chippendale again, each facing the other. Sat in the chair nearer to the door through which Fedora and Pestis had just entered was Audrey, her Catwoman outfit covered by an ill-fitting, grubby raincoat, patently not her own. Her head was slumped to one side.
In the chair opposite sat a man of about forty-five with a shaven head and a neck wider than his forehead. His left hand hung limply by his side, while in his right he held a semi-automatic pistol fitted with a silencer, which was aimed, somewhat loosely and without conviction, at Audrey.
“Where the ‘ell ‘ave you bin?” he growled. He was large enough to cause concern in all those who met him, but in stark contrast to his build, which was that of someone who visited a gym most days and actually used it, the man’s voice was weak with a hoarse, rasping quality, as if he spent his days chain-smoking roll-ups or choking on peanuts. “Ten minutes you said. I’ve bin freezin’ me nuts off down ‘ere for ‘arfur nour an’ this bird’s beginnin’ to wake up.”
Audrey gave a low guttural moan and attempted, fruitlessly, to raise her head.
“Patience, Igor. Plot recaps can take time and the consequences can be unpredictable, especially when faced with someone who refuses to believe they’re involved,” smirked Fedora.
“’Ow many times ‘ave I told yer, the name’s Gregor?” He rose, set down the gun on the seat of the chair and walked slowly over to Fedora. “Next time yer call me that,” he curled the fingers of his left hand around Fedora’s neck, giving a passing impression of bananas encircling a carrot, and brought his right hand, now made into a fist, up to his cheek, “I might just forget I’m a gentleman and rip yer bleedin’ ‘ead off!”
Fedora’s face was now as white as his bandages. “Okay, okay! We were a little longer than anticipated – Gregor – but we’re here now.”
“’Bout time, an’ all. I’m not a bleedin’ babysitter!”
“No, you’re a thug who’s being paid a not inconsiderable sum of money to remove a few obstacles for us. Now if you wouldn’t mind…” Fedora made an attempt to release himself from Gregor’s grip, but not having a hydraulic ram in his possession, he had to wait a second or two longer until Gregor deigned to let him go.
“When you two have quite finished, we’ve got some urgent business to attend to here,” snapped Pestis. “Now, let’s get these two into the car then Ben and I can get back to the party before we’re missed. Oh, and speaking of babysitters, you can bet your futures that the dainty Miss Band and her resourceful little brother are filling in the blanks in their stories as I speak, before blabbing all to slow-witted Mr Plod, if they haven’t done so already. So, in short, GET A SODDING MOVE ON!”
“Actually, I’m very surprised we haven’t had a visit from – JESUS CHRIST!” A piercing scream stopped Fedora in his tracks.
“RICHARD!” Audrey’s panic-stricken yell reverberated from the bare stone walls and numbed everyone in the room.
“Quick,” ordered Pestis, pointing to the chair, “the gun!”
“Oh, bleedin’ ‘ell!” The lumbering thug turned and took a step toward the weapon.
Audrey, trying desperately to get to Richard, but still groggy from the effects of the drug, stumbled and fell at Gregor’s feet, grasping his lower legs and pushing him back into Fedora, whose feet were trapped between the muscle-bound giant and the mattress. The two men tumbled headlong into the wall. A sickening crack rent the cold, dank air as Gregor and Fedora slumped motionless across Richard’s chest.
“Ben!” “Richard!” cried Pestis and Audrey in unison.
“You bitch!” they both yelled at each other.
“Get out of my way!” snarled Pestis, grabbing Audrey by the throat as she tried to clamber to her feet. “I can see I’m going to have to finish you off myself, you meddling little whore.”
“Oh, yeah!” spat Audrey, her senses returning rapidly. The veins in her temples began to pulsate and her face reddened starkly. “Well try this for size, you overbearing, cowardly little shit!” Audrey snatched at the post horn and swung it fiercely at Pestis’ head.
At the last moment, Pestis jerked her head back to avoid the blow, but the horn still caught her smartly across the cheekbone with a resounding clang. She sank to her knees and leant against one of the chairs, her eyes streaming from the searing pain. As she put out her hand to steady herself, she felt the milled grip of the pistol in her palm. In an instant, she turned to face Audrey and held out the gun at arm’s length ready to fire. As Pestis tried to focus her bleary vision, Audrey seized her chance and dived full length onto Pestis’ kneeling frame, pushing the gun to one side as she did so.
Pestis tightened her grip on the weapon. A muffled explosion, reminiscent of hydrogen popping in a school test tube, caused both women to pause momentarily and watch almost in awe, as the three prostrate male figures seemed to twitch as one and a thick, red pool began to form on the basement floor.
Audrey was not, in any way, as weak as her lithe frame would suggest, but she was no match for her soulless, determined opponent. She watched the blood oozing out across the grey concrete and feared for her gullible, idiotic, but beloved husband. Overwhelming helplessness engulfed her and this time it was Audrey’s vision that began to blur.
There was no fight left and when Pestis pushed, Audrey rolled over compliantly still watching her husband.
“Don’t waste your tears on any of them, dear,” sneered Pestis, now standing over Audrey and pointing the gun at her head. “They’re all as useless as each other and when you get to the other side, you can tell whichever one of them you meet that I said so.”
Pestis raised the weapon and took aim.
Another explosion echoed around the basement walls. This time more like a large balloon popping. Audrey’s body jerked. She looked down at her chest and saw a large splash of red. Her heart began to race and she felt the strength drain from her. She looked up imploringly at Pestis, who was staring back at her, a curious half-smile on her lips. Then, as she watched, Audrey noticed a slow trickle of blood ease its way down Pestis’ chin and drip onto her gown to join an ever-widening crimson patch on her chest. Suddenly, her arms dropped to her sides, her knees buckled and she fell onto her right side, surprisingly gracefully.
“Are you all right, ma’am?”
Audrey’s gaze travelled from the lifeless body of Yvette Pestis to the figures framed in the doorway and back again several times before incredulity, incomprehension and astonishment took hold and her senses began to reel once again. The last sounds she heard that night were a male voice talking in code and requesting an ambulance, followed by a loud crackle, then a female’s rasping acknowledgement. At that point, she allowed the inviting darkness to engulf her and carry her away.
(to be continued)