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It was completely dark in the unfinished house. To make matters worse, it
was a moonless nigssht, and such stars as normally sparkled in the clear,
windswept autumn air were obscured by rare cloud cover. Chris shifted her
foot. She'd been standing still long enough that the sensation of the nail
under her sole had numbed. She noticed it only when she moved. Still she
waited, hoping her eyes would make a further adjustment to the unrelieved
Even standing still this long, her pulse hadn't slowed. A hundred feet
below, the sea pounded. A tropical storm was traveling the South Pacific,
and even this far north, the Central Coast was feeling the effects.
"Generating winds of up to 50 miles per hour...." she could hear her
colleague saying. The house seemed to sway with the crashing surf, unsteady
on its poles. That was an illusion, she knew. It was her own legs that were
unsteady. She cursed him again, and her own insatiable curiosity.
She tried to focus. She stood in what would undoubtedly be the living
room - an expanse of white Sheetrock for the moment, which gave way on one
side to a wall of glass. The view would be spectacular. On the opposite
wall, flagstone had been fashioned into an oversized fireplace. It seemed
curiously complete in this incomplete room, except that a gaping rectangular
hole directly in front of it left room for a hearthstone.
Imported marble, she remembered: one detail that had shown up on both
sets of plans. Detail. Remember, she thought to herself, one detail can
save your life. Reed had always told her that, and he was the best reporter
in the business. She should leave this place, this swaying, unhallowed
structure, menacing in its protruding metal shards and ragged concrete edges.
But she'd been led here, vectored here by one clue after another. She had
to find out.
Chris took a step and her knee buckled. She caught herself by bracing
against a cinderblock wall, tearing a piece of skin from her palm. She
cursed in the dark, but the sharp pain had served to sharpen her attention.
The reasons she'd come here began to return to her mind in an orderly
progression. He'd called her again. He'd been right about the plans.
Chances are he was right about this house. Her own research had confirmed
part of what he'd said, this illusive informer, a man with no name who called
with tantalizing fragments of information. She tried to fit them together
like so many shards of broken crystal, clear and sharp-edged.
She was here to gather more shards and she found herself resenting it.
Joseph would be waiting with a clandestine dinner for two, all the more
romantic for the secrecy. The thought hastened her, and she tried again to
focus on the incomplete room. Clicking on her flashlight, she began
inspecting the raw beams and Sheetrock.
"A171" was scrawled on one beam. "A172" was on the next. Okay, so these
guys can count, she thought. On the next beam was an arrow pointing down.
She knelt awkwardly, trying to read the next mark. It seemed to be a depth
marker, followed by another arrow pointing down.
She'd have to check the length measurements printed on the poles. That
meant climbing down the unfinished stairs into that black hole. Blacker
than the unfinished, moonless living room. Cursing again, she began walking
towards the fireplace, remembering to avoid the gaping hole in front of it.
Somehow through the wind and crashing surf, she heard a noise. Clicking
off her flashlight, she hugged her body close to the Sheetrock. I'm alone in
a windswept rattletrap of raw beams and rusty metal scraps, and I ought to be
home doing my nails, she found herself thinking. Details. They were always
her best defense against fear.
Clicking her flashlight back on, she began to search for stairs. There
was nothing, however, but a ladder leading down into the hearth-well. "It's
nothing but a black hole," she said out loud. "Blacker than a black cat's ass
on black velvet."
"There's a quick way down there, Ms. Christian."
"Uh! Oh, for Christ's sake, you just about scared the.... What the hell
are you doing here?" Her heart pounded louder than the surf. She clutched
her flashlight and tried to keep it from bouncing across the man's features.
"I work here, Ms. Christian." The voice was steady, self-assured. The
face seamed, it towered over a hulking physique.
"Oh...yes. I remember. Good thing you're here, because I could really
use some help." A laugh erupted out of her throat like a burst of static
from a malfunctioning radio. "You see, I've been trying to get a reading on
these beams, and it's so hard to see in the dark." The man said nothing.
She wondered how long the uninterrupted stream of words could surround her
like a kind of force field. "Say, you didn't even bring a flashlight."
"Very perceptive," he said simply.
"Guess you know the house real well if you work here. One of the
construction crew, huh?"
"Well, listen, it's really getting late, and I'll come back in the
morning when I can see better. Thanks a lot for all your help." She made a
move away from the hearth-well, but it only brought her closer to the man.
She could smell alcohol on his breath as he spoke. Probably a bourbon
drinker, she thought absently.
"Oh, I haven't done anything yet."
"But you're about to, am I right?" Humor had always been her strong
point. That and clear, simple logic. How many times had she played out this
scenario in her head? How many times had she talked her way out of a tight
It was now or never, she knew. He might be bigger, stronger, more
massive, but maneuverability was on her side. She clicked off her flashlight
and hurled it at him. She'd already chosen exactly where her foot would land
when she cleared the hole. In the sudden blackness she knew she'd have a
second's worth of advantage. It was just the second she needed.
She heard the crack first, before she felt the impact. Sounded like a
gunshot, she thought. And the next sound she heard was someone's voice, as
though from a great distance. It was yelling. No, it was screaming,
screaming for help.
As she landed, the wind was forced from her body like exhaust from a jet
engine. That voice, she found herself thinking. It sounded familiar... it
sounded like mine. But it couldn't have been. It was too far away.
It'd been too many seconds since air had found its way into her lungs,
and with a sudden clarity, she realized she wasn't breathing. In the same
moment, Chris began to feel dirt pressing on her chest. Desperately, she
inhaled, but she found no oxygen. Only the wet, sandy soil of the Central