The hallway was deeply and eerily silent. There was no movement of air, no sound. Brad, Ray and Frank walked cautiously, minding their steps.
The fourth door swung open on silent hinges before they reached it. Brad ignored it, walked past. Frank did the same but stopped when Ray did. The writer was looking in.
"Don't," Frank said. His voice, though he was talking at a normal volume, was a bare whisper to Ray. "You know you can't go in."
"Hold on. There's someone in there," Ray said. "I can hear 'em clear."
Ray put a hand on the door jamb and stepped inside as far as he could without letting go.
"Where is it?" The male voice was angry. "Where did you stash it?" There was a crash of glass and metal to emphasize the question.
"I won't talk to you when you're like this," a woman's voice said. "You won't hear me anyway."
"What did you do with it? Where is it, Emily?"
Frank's face darkened and he pushed past Ray into the room.
"WHERE," the man's voice roared like a thunderclap across a leaden sky, "IS IT?" . To Ray's eyes, Frank appeared to turn ghostly the farther away he got from the door.
"Stop!" Ray said. "Stop! Frank, I almost can’t see you!"
Frank turned back to Ray. "Stay there," he said. I'll be all right but you shouldn't come in. Just – Just give me a minute. Stay right there." His back to Ray, Frank turned the corner around the entry and was gone.
Ray tried to listen.
"It's put away," the woman, Emily, said. "It's safe. No one can take it."
"What right do you have? Where do you get the balls to take the capsule like that?"
"You don't understand," she said. "You never will, Simon. Let it go."
"I can't stay with you," he said, his voice raised but not yelling. "I can't live with someone I can't trust. I loved you." A long pause and what Ray thought might be crying, at least some sniffles. "I still love you, but I don't trust you any more."
A longer pause. "I'll move out as soon as I can," the woman said. "I'll stay somewhere else until then."
A rustle of cloth.
"It was mine," Simon said. Ray could barely hear him growl, imagined that he had the woman by the arm with his face close to hers. "It was mine. You have no idea what you've taken, what it can do."
"No it wasn't," she said. "It was an accident that it was here at all. And you have no idea. Let me go. I'm leaving."
The woman came around the corner very quickly, her purse slung over her shoulder, her skirts swirling around her. She stopped just short of the door, right in front of Ray but didn't see him. She closed her eyes, took a deep breath.
"I love you, Simon," she said in a voice so quiet that surely the man in the other room couldn't have heard. "Goodbye." Ray moved out of her way, still holding the door jamb and she walked past him into the hall.
Not knowing what to do, Ray watched the corner for Frank to come back around and then curiosity got the better of him. He stepped out into the hall to see which way Emily had gone, but there was no sign of her. There was no sign of Brad, either. Puzzled, he stuck his head back into the room and Frank came toward him, scowling.
"We have to go," Ray said. "I can't see where Brad went."
"Follow me," Frank said, his voice hollow and sharp. He went into the hall and continued toward the far end from where they entered. "Stay close."
The writer took one last look into the room before following Frank and saw a middle-aged man staring back at the doorway. His fists were clenched, his body shook and tears streamed down his cheeks. "I'll find it again," he said. "If it takes forever, I'll find it again."
"Yeah," he said in response. "Coming." He pivoted to his right and followed Frank. When he caught up, Ray said, "You find Brad?"
"He's up ahead," Frank said. He was walking faster than before and his face was tight, focused. Ray almost asked what was wrong, opened his mouth, closed it and tried to keep up.
They found Brad at the top of another stairwell. "Down," he said to them and stepped onto the tread. Frank and Ray brought up the rear.
"Sixteen flights again," Ray said, "and we come to a door. Interesting."
"Don't think about it too much," Frank said. "Tesseracts aren't easy to grasp on purpose."
Ray nodded and Brad opened the door. The three men came out into an elegant sitting room with four leather wingback chairs, a bar, a huge chandelier and two sofas. The wingbacks were arranged in a triangle around an octagonal table. There was a piece of paper folded in half on the table.
Frank picked it up.
"What's it say?" Brad seemed impatient, looking around. Shelves filled with knickknacks and small photographs lined each wall. The door behind them closed with a quiet click. "There's not another door," he said.
"Right," Frank said and held out the paper to Brad. "We're supposed to wait here. A guide will take us the rest of the way."
"Whiskey anyone?" Ray was at the bar with a glass in one hand, a bottle of Lagavulin whiskey in the other. Brad held out a hand, Frank nodded, Ray poured.
"I've been in this room before," Ray said, sitting down. "There was a caretaker, Holden or Hudgins or ---"
"Hodgkins," Frank said. "George Hodgkins, right?"
"Yeah," Ray said. "That's it. You've met him before?"
Frank shrugged. "Maybe. Maybe I haven't met him yet. Time's weird for me."
Ray frowned then looked up at Brad. "Sit down," he said. "We're gonna be here a while. Might as well as relax."
Brad darted back to the door. He tried to turn the knob. "Locked," he said. "This is the only door and it's locked." He pounded with his fist. "We're trapped."
"Brad," Frank said. The other man didn't turn around. "Brad."
The old man turned, his eyes closed. Frank went to him and put an arm around Brad's shoulders. "It won't be too long," Frank said. "We'll be on our way again in a bit. Sit down and try to relax. There aren't any enemies here. The castle is trying to help us find her."
Brad collapsed into the wingback much the same way he'd collapsed at the hotel. When Frank stood up, he saw that Brad was crying silently. Frank walked around the table to the last wingback chair and sat, resting his arms on the sides of the chair.
"So," Ray said, "what is this place, really? What do you know about it?"
"It's a kind of way station," Frank said. "It's in the mittelmarkes, between the real and the unreal." He frowned. "You already knew that, though."
"But what I don't know is what the - what did you call it? - the mittelmarkes is. Are. Am."
Frank snorted a little, deriding the question. "What you really want to know is who's in charge."
Ray rolled his eyes, caught. He snatched a glance toward Brad who was burrowing into the side of his chair, then faced Frank. "Yeah," he said. "Kind of."
"You're not a religious man, then?"
"No. Not really. God and the devil, angels and demons, vampires, werewolves, none of it's really real to me, but it's fun to write about, think about and explore the possibilities."
Frank leaned forward. "They're real, but the names are different. Men didn't get it quite right when they started to think about it. Except maybe Lovecraft and some of the others." Frank waved his hand at the ceiling. "It's the crazy ideas that are real, Ray. The safe ones are just wishful thinking."
Just then the door to the sitting room opened.
"Good evening," the man in the doorway said. He was dressed in the black uniform of a butler. "Are you gentlemen ready to move forward?"
"Hodgkins?" Ray stood up. "You're George Hodgkins, right? Do you remember me? Ray Briscoe."
"Of course, sir," Hodgkins said. "I would welcome you back, but events are moving quite quickly and we have a limited amount of time to get you through to the basements."
He came inside the door and stood to one side. "Mr. Martin, Seeker, Mr. Briscoe," he said leaning slightly forward, "if you please. We should go now."
The hallway was different. It was very plain and extraordinarily well-lit. None of the four men cast shadows as they walked and the carpet was blood red with gold diamond accents. Ray stayed close to Brad who was moping and not at all the energetic old man he'd been prior to arriving in the sitting room. Frank walked just behind their guide.
"Hodgkins," Frank said. "Is this place part of the Chondria or does it belong to Brahmen?"
"Neither," the butler said guiding them to a stairway. "We'll go down if you don't mind.
"The castle," he said as they descended, "is part of the Abstract. A neutral player in the game of the cosmos."
"I've never heard of the Abstract."
"I'm not at all surprised," Hodgkins said. "Most of the players in the war between Chondria and Brahmen haven't."
Frank pondered this as they walked downward, six flights, eight, ten, fourteen, sixteen. Ray was holding Brad up by the time they reached the landing, a thin affair that extended into darkness on either side of the door they stopped at.
"Welcome, gentlemen," Hodgkins said, "to the Kitchen."
Thanks for reading Reader.
©2010 By Jason Arnett.
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