Lord loss, p.9
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       Lord Loss, p.9

         Part #1 of The Demonata series by Darren Shan
 
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  admiring his wine collection.

  He isn't here.

  Sitting up in bed. Listening to the wind. Thinking about dead animals and old werewolf films. Afraid to sleep.

  My eyes snap open. Early morning. Must have dozed off despite my fear. I roll out of bed. Grey day, sky obscured by clouds.

  I pad downstairs to the kitchen. Scent of fried bacon and sausages. I push the door open slowly. Dervish inside, at the frying pan, humming. It takes him a moment to spot me. He smiles. “You're up early.”

  “I didn't sleep very well.”

  “Hungry?” Dervish asks. “Want some bacon? Eggs?”

  “I'll just do toast for myself.” I stick two slices of bread in. Pause over the toaster, my back to him. “I went up to see you last night,” I say innocently. “Couldn't find you. Were you out?”

  The shortest of pauses. Then, “Yeah. I went to a pub in the Vale. Met Meera there. She went on somewhere else afterwards. Sorry I didn't tell you.”

  “That's OK.” I reach for the butter. “Did you take the bike?” If he says he did, I'll know he's lying — I would have heard it.

  “No,” he says. “I walked. I don't hold with drinking and driving.”

  I turn from the toaster, smiling. Dervish is concentrating on his bacon. I can't believe I spent so much time worrying last night. I open my mouth to tell him about yesterday's scene with Bill-E.

  Then close it.

  Dervish is reaching for an egg with his right hand. My eyes are attracted to his nails. Not long — but jagged. Dirty. Red stains under the tips.

  It could be paint or rust or something he ate in the pub the night before.

  Or it could be blood.

  Staring. Staring. Staring.

  The toaster pops behind me.

  I almost scream.

  Dragging clothes out of the washing machine. If Dervish walks in on me, I'll say I left money in one of my pockets.

  Underpants. Socks. Shirts. Trousers. Finally — a blue denim shirt with a small eagle insignia on the left breast pocket. The shirt Dervish was wearing last night.

  I run my nose over it. Unpleasant and sweaty, but not smoky. Not beery. Not like it would smell if he'd spent a few hours in a pub.

  Sitting by the phone. I want to call Bill-E, tell him about Dervish disappearing, the blood, the scentless shirt. Except —

  He might have gone to the pub like he said.

  Maybe he changed shirts before he went out, after I last saw him.

  The stains under his nails could have been anything.

  If Bill-E hadn't filled my head with garbage, I'd have thought nothing of Dervish slipping out without telling me. It's not the first time he's done it. He gives me plenty of space and freedom, and expects the same in return. Nothing suspicious about that.

  But what does he do when he's out by himself? Where does he go? Did he really meet Meera in the Vale? If so, why didn't she come back here with him? And if he changed shirts before he went out, why isn't the one he wore to the pub in the machine with the rest of his dirty laundry?

  Carcery Vale. Outside the Lion & Lamb. There are several pubs in the Vale. I want to go into them all to check if Dervish was in town last night.

  My story — Dervish lost his watch, and sent me to ask if it had been found. He can't remember which pub he'd been in, so I'm doing the rounds of them all.

  Holding me back — somebody might mention my queries to Dervish.

  In the end I turn away from the Lion & Lamb and make for home. Not reckless or scared enough to check on Dervish's alibi. Not yet.

  Night. Alone in the house. Meera called in this afternoon. I wanted to ask if she'd enjoyed the pub last night, but Dervish was there and I didn't want to be so obvious. They left a few hours ago. Dervish told me they were going into the Vale and not to wait up for them. Asked if I'd like them to bring back anything. I said some chips would be nice.

  A truly crazy thought — what if Dervish and Meera are both werewolves? I cast that from my thoughts even before it's fully formed.

  In one of the spare bedrooms, close to the lower end of the house, where the brick extension is. A clear view of the road from here. The room across the hall has an equally good view of the rear yard and sheds. I've left the window open, so if there are any noises, I should hear them.

  Glued to the front window. Hoping to see Dervish and Meera staggering back from the village, singing drunkenly. Planning cutting comments for Bill-E. Wondering if this is all a big gag designed to scare me. I'll be mad as hell if it is — but relieved at the same time.

  After midnight. Eyelids drooping. A clanging noise out back jolts me out of my half-daze.

  I bolt through to the back room. Edge up to the open window. Peer out. The clouds aren't as thick as they were earlier. An almost-full moon lights most of the yard, though drifting clouds create random stretched shadows.

  Dervish and Meera are by the sheet of corrugated iron where the tree stumps are. They're sliding it over to one side. Behind them, on the ground, half-hidden by shadows, something large wriggles. I train my sights on it. Moments later, the clouds drift on and moonlight falls directly on the creature.

  A deer, its four hooves bound together with rope, its snout muzzled.

  Dervish and Meera finish with the sheet of corrugated iron. I spot two large wooden doors set in concrete in the middle of the ring of tree stumps. A thick chain and lock. Dervish bends to it, takes a key from his pocket, fiddles with the lock, throws the chain to one side, and hauls the doors open.

  Steps leading down beneath the ground. Dervish picks up the deer and drapes it over his shoulders. It struggles. He ignores it and starts down the steps. Meera follows, pausing to swing the doors shut behind her.

  Clouds scud across the face of the moon. I stare at the doors in the ground. Silent. White-faced. Petrified.

  Waiting for Dervish and Meera to come out. Chewing my fingernails. Going back to my earlier crazy thought — what if they're both werewolves? I try to cheer myself up by remembering his oath when I moved in — “You'll be safe here.” Wondering if that still holds true.

  Minutes pass. Ten. Fifteen. Half an hour.

  Thinking — they didn't look different when they took the deer down. No extra hair. No sharp canines. Wearing their normal clothes. They weren't howling at the moon. Dervish was able to insert the key into the lock, so his hands couldn't be twisted into animal-like claws. Not the appearance or actions of werewolves.

  Forty-five minutes. Fifty. Coming up to an hour when … they reappear.

  But not through the doors in the ground — instead, from the kitchen!

  They walk out of the house, over to the wooden doors. Dervish takes the length of chain, runs it through the two large handles, then locks it. Both of them carefully slide the sheet of corrugated iron back over the doors, hiding them. They drag their feet over the marks in the dirt left by the corrugated iron, masking the tracks. Wipe their hands clean. Dervish scans the surrounding area one final time, then they return to the house.

  As soon as they enter, I close the window and race for my room — I don't want them to find me here.

  Under the covers, fully dressed, shaking.

  Footsteps on the stairs.

  I shut my eyes and feign sleep, expecting Dervish to look in on me. But the footsteps continue up to the top floor — his study.

  I wait several minutes. When there are no further sounds, I slip out of bed, undress, and put on my pajamas, then sneak back to the rear bedroom. (I can pretend I'm sleep-walking if they discover me now.)

  Studying the sheet of corrugated iron. Picking at the puzzle. Dervish and Meera went down the steps in the rear yard, but came up through the house. There must be a secret passage to somewhere inside the mansion.

  Quick calculating. Flash upon the obvious answer — the cellar. The wine just a ruse. Dervish doesn't want to keep me away from the cellar to protect his prize vintages, but to safeguard whatever lies beneath.

  Bed. Impos
sible to sleep. Knees drawn up to my chest. Trembling. Clutching a silver axe that I took from one of the walls. Praying I don't have to use it.

  Shortly after dawn. Eyes drooping. Fingers loose on the axe handle.

  The door bursts open. Meera barges in. I try to scream but my throat constricts and all I manage is a thin squeak.

  Meera's holding a bag. She jabs a hand into it. My imagination fills the bag with all sorts of horrors. I struggle to bring the axe up but it catches on the sheets.

  Meera pulls a cluster of objects out of the bag and lobs them at me. I cringe away from her, wishing I could sink through the wall behind me.

  Some of the objects strike me dead in the face. I gasp, desperately swat them away, then blink with surprise as I realize what she's throwing —

  Chips!

  THE CELLAR

  DERVISH and Meera are still laughing in the morning. “Your face!” Dervish chortles at breakfast. “Like every demon in hell was coming for you!”

  As I've noted before, my uncle has a twisted sense of humor.

  I say nothing while Dervish and Meera enjoy their little joke, only keep my head down and focus on my food. Dervish doesn't understand why I was so scared. He doesn't know that I saw him with the deer, that I suspect he's a werewolf, that I'm wondering if I can buy silver bullets on eBay. I doubt he'd be laughing if he did.

  The house to myself. Dervish's early morning runs usually last forty-five minutes to an hour. Enough time for a quick scouting mission.

  I hurry down the stairs to the wine cellar. Pause with my hand on the door. In horror movies, monsters always lurk in the basement. But this isn't a movie. I mustn't succumb to fictional fears — not when I have very real fears to contend with.

  Creeping down the steps. Leave the door open. Checking my watch — seven minutes since Dervish left. I'll allow myself half an hour, not a second more.

  Pause at the bottom of the steps. Dark and cool. I shuffle forward and an overhead light winks on. Studying the rows of wine racks. I turn full circle. My heart beats erratically. My legs feel like they belong to an elephant — heavyyyyy. The axe in my left hand looks tiny and ineffective in the glaring light of the cellar.

  I stalk the nearest aisle, studying the floor — stone slabs, different shapes, tightly cemented together. I pause occasionally, crouch, and rap a slab with the base of my axe, listening for echoes.

  None. Solid.

  Left at the end. Exploring a second aisle, then a third, a fourth.

  No strange-looking slabs. No echoes anywhere I rap. The joining cement between the slabs unbroken. No trace of a hidden door.

  Back where I started. Twenty of the thirty minutes have elapsed. Sweating like a pig who can smell burning charcoal. I'm beginning to think I could be wrong about the cellar. Perhaps the hidden entrance is in one of the ground-floor rooms. But I won't give up yet.

  I scout the rim of the room, concentrating on the walls, running my fingers over the rough, dry stone, searching for cracks.

  A wine rack — ceiling-high, maybe three meters long — covers one section of the wall. My hopes raise — this could be blocking a secret passage! — but when I lift out a couple of bottles, all I see behind is more stone wall. I remove a few more bottles from various places but nothing out of the ordinary is revealed.

  Two minutes left. This is a waste. I'll focus on the rooms above. Perhaps the passageway is hidden behind one of Dervish's many bookcases. I'll start in the main hall and work my way …

  The thought dies unfinished. As I'm rising to leave, I spot a dark smudge on the floor. Stooping closer, I move my head out of the way of the light and squint for a better view.

  It's a semi-circular stain, pale, easily missed. Unmistakably a footprint.

  Although there aren't many footprints in the cellar — Dervish keeps it really clean — this isn't the first I've discovered. What sets this one apart from the others is that it faces away from the wine rack, and the mark of the heel lies hidden beneath the bottles.

  Gotcha!

  Watching TV. Nervous. Waiting for Dervish to leave.

  There was no time to examine the wine rack. Once I'd noted the print, I came straight up and carefully closed the door behind me. Dervish returned a few minutes later, but I was safe in my room by then, and had splashed my face with cold water to take away the bright red flush I'd worked up in the cellar.

  Dervish has spent most of the day since then in his study, as he often does, reading, making phone calls, surfing the Net. Time's dragged for me. I have only one burning desire — to get back down the cellar. Not being able to is driving me crazy.

  I've been keeping a close watch on the front door — don't want Dervish slipping out unnoticed. I even leave the bathroom door open when I'm in there, so I'll hear him if he comes down the stairs.

  So far, no such luck. But I'm patient. He has to leave eventually. He can't stay cooped up here forever.

  Night falls. Dervish still hasn't ventured outside.

  Over a late dinner, I ask casually if he has any plans for the night.

  “Thought I might hit the pub again,” he says, grinning sheepishly.

  “Are you meeting Meera?”

  “Maybe, maybe not. With the unfathomable Meera Flame, who knows?”

  “What's the sudden great attraction about drinking in the Vale?” I ask.

  “A pretty new barmaid,” he laughs.

  “What's her name?”

  A pause. Then, quickly, “Lucy.”

  “Getting anywhere with her?”

  “She's slowly warming to my charms,” he chuckles. “I'll give it another few nights. If she hasn't bitten by then, I'll cut my losses, maybe take you and Bill-E out to see a movie.”

  He makes it sound very casual, but I know what he's really doing — giving himself an excuse to stay out after dark for the next few nights, until the full moon has come and passed.

  Dervish leaves at 9:48 precisely. He sticks his head in my room as he's going and laughingly tells me not to wait up. I smile weakly in reply and say nothing about the fact that he hasn't changed his clothes, slipped on a nice pair of shoes, combed his hair, or sprayed under his arms with deodorant — all the things he would have done if he'd truly been going out cruising.

  My uncle has a lot to learn about the art of espionage!

  At the cellar door. Hesitant. I'd rather do this by daylight. Going down this late at night, not knowing how long Dervish will be away or when to expect him back, is far from ideal. I consider waiting until morning, when he goes for his daily jog and I have a guaranteed three-quarters of an hour to play with.

  But I've had almost no sleep these last two nights. I'm exhausted. I might snore through my alarm in the morning and wake late, the opportunity missed. I don't dare wait.

  Deep breath. Tight grip on my axe. Descent.

  The wall on either side of the rack is solid, but when I remove one of the bottles, reach in, and rap on the “bricks” behind, there's a dull echo. Grunting, I grab hold of the edge of the rack and pull.

  It doesn't budge.

  I exert more pressure — same result. Try the other side — no go.

  Stepping back. Analyzing the problem. Look closer at the wooden rack. There's a thin divide down the middle. I grab sections of the rack on either side of the divide and try prying them apart. They give slightly — a fraction of an inch — then hold firm.

  Brute force isn't the answer. I'm convinced the divide is the key. I just have to figure out how to use it.

  Studying the rack. My fingers creep to the top of one of the bottles. Idly twirl it left and right while my brain's ticking over.

  I'm taking a step to the left, to check the sides of the rack again, when I stop and gaze down at my fingers. I half-pull the bottle out, then push it back in. Smiling, I grab, twist and pull the bottle above, then the one beside it. All are loose, but I'm sure, if I go through every bottle on the rack, I'll find one that isn't.

  Methodical. Start from the bottom le
ft, even though I suspect the device will be situated higher, towards the middle. Checking each bottle in turn, twisting it, tugging it out, placing it back in its original position. I'm leaving fingerprints all over the place — should have worn gloves — but I'll worry about that later.

  All the way across to the right. Up a row. Then all the way across to the left. Up and across. Up and across. Up and …

  Getting higher. Minutes ticking away. I quicken my pace, anxious to make progress. Pull too hard on one bottle. It comes flying out and drops to the floor. I collapse after it and catch it just before it hits and smashes into a hundred pieces. Place it back on the rack with shaking fingers. Work at a steady, cautious pace after that.

  Past the midway mark. Four rows from the top, on the right. My hopes fading. Trying to think of some other way to part the racks. Half-tempted to take my axe to the wood and chop through. I know that's crazy, but I'm so wound up, I might just —

  Seventh bottle from the right. I twist but it doesn't move. Everything stops. My breath catches. Step up close to the bottle and examine it. No different from any of the others, except it's jammed tight into place. I give it a harder shake, to make sure it isn't simply stuck.
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