Read Four and Twenty Blackbirds Online

Authors: Cherie Priest

Tags: #Fantasy, #Horror, #Contemporary, #Dark Fantasy, #Fiction

Four and Twenty Blackbirds (20 page)

But I was looking into the recesses of the cellar, aiming my light down the rows and seeking the back wall but not finding it. How deep did this place go? Did it run the entire length of the house, or even farther? I looked up above and saw only the bare ceiling supports. No electrical fixtures. Probably no electricity. Something scuttled along one of the rafters over my head. I saw a slim tail whip back and forth, then vanish with a pitter of claws on wood.

"Eww,"
I complained.

"Don't pay them any attention. I told you, they stay here and don't bother me if I don't bother them. Hey, girl. Come and take a look at this. I wonder if it's any good. Do you know anything about wine? It all gets better with age, doesn't it? Unless it goes to vinegar. Isn't that right? Would it taste good after all these years?"

"No, I don't . . . I don't know anything formal. All I know is what I like." Another rat scooted along a parallel beam. Then a third. I thought it strange that they were running towards us and past us.

Tatie's assurances aside, I didn't like it. As Eliza continued to demand my attention, my suspicion grew.

"Would you just come here a second? Look at it. I'm telling you, this is older than I am. Don't you even want to take a look?"

I didn't move, I only shined my light in her direction, aiming at her midsection so I could see her clearly without blinding her. "How can you tell?"

"What do you mean, how can I tell? The date's right here beneath the name of the vineyard!" She poked the filthy label with one agitated, bony finger.

"Then why'd you send Harry up to get your glasses?"

She froze, her grip tightening on the bottle.

Something was definitely going on. I figured when I came that the pretense was likely false, but now I was absolutely certain she was up to no good. I backed slowly towards the stairs. "Why did you really send Harry away? You wanted me alone down here—what for?"

She hesitated, nearly fumbling with the bottle before she found her brashness again. "You've got a screw loose, girl. I can read the date because it's printed real big. Here, come and see it. Come and look for yourself, if you want to."

"No. I don't think I will." The back of my leg bumped against the bottom stair. Still keeping her in my sights, I began to slowly ascend. "I think I'm going to go get my things and leave."

"What? Why? What's spooked you so bad? This is ridiculous."

She was stalling me, but I was letting her. What if she was right? What if I was making a mountain of a molehill? "I shouldn't have come here. This was a bad idea."

"How so?"

"Because I think that you're—"

Right then the door opened quickly, flooding the stairs with light. A slim figure cut the brightness for a fraction of a moment before the door slammed closed behind him, but it was long enough for me to see the danger. I jumped away from the stairs as Malachi crashed down them, falling the last of the way and nearly flattening Eliza in the process.

She pressed her back against one of the shelves and let out a cry of anger, but not surprise. "You were supposed to be down here already!"

He didn't have a gun this time, but he brandished a long black nightstick. Not for a second did he turn it to his grand-aunt, and she did not shirk away from him. We all knew he was here for me.

About that time Harry returned, probably having heard the commotion of Malachi's bumbling entrance. But the door was locked behind us, and Eliza was holding the keys in her sweater pocket. The manservant began to beat against the door, abandoning protocol and calling both our names. I doubted he'd hear if I called back, and there was nothing he could do anyway, so I saved my energy for the lunatic in front of me.

I beamed my light directly into his eyes and he flinched, but lunged forward. I ducked away, swinging the sturdy flashlight and connecting it with his head, but only barely. He caught my hand and I twisted it free, kicking against him with the toe of my weighty boots as he brought his weapon down from above.

The nightstick missed my head but caught my shoulder, and it hurt like hell. He raised it up again and came in close. I braced myself against the side of the stairs and shoved him away with both of my feet, though I had to drop my light to do it. Something inside it cracked. The bulb went out as it rolled around on the floor.

Now Eliza's electric torch was the only illumination, and she was wielding it too erratically to do anyone any good. Malachi could hardly tell where I was, and I could hardly see where he was coming from.

I pulled my knife out of the holster on my belt, fully intending to use it if I had to. My legs are strong and they ended in a pair of army surplus boots, so I let them serve as my main defense; no woman in her right mind puts her arms up against a man's upper-body strength, even when the man in question is a skinny twerp. That skinny twerp was holding a heavy weapon, and I wanted that weapon to stay far, far away from me. So long as I kept moving, my defense worked. My mad brother was forced to stay at a distance far enough away from me that he couldn't land a good blow.

Unable to see me clearly or to get past my kicking, he started swinging wildly, slamming the stick into anything that was holding still. This meant he mostly missed me and caught the rack at my side, which was fine with me, but not so fine for the old wood rack. After he'd given it several solid blows it broke with a splintering crack, followed by a series of resounding clanks. Bottles of wine were dropping down to the stones and wandering heavily about in awkward ovals. Malachi stepped on one and staggered, falling into the pitch darkness somewhere between the shelves, then retreating to regroup.

Harry was still beating on the door, harder and more furiously than before. The knocking stopped, then became a hard lunge. I wished him nothing but luck, but that door was old and stout, and I didn't think he'd be able to break it.

Eliza turned her flashlight on me. I saw only her silhouette behind the beam, but I could make a good guess about where she was. If I could reach her, I could possibly use her as a hostage and bargaining chip.

Good idea, but it came too late. Malachi had pulled himself together. His shoes scraped on the gritty stones, then he launched himself boldly into the air. It didn't do him much good. He landed chest-down on my knife. It sideswiped his collarbone and sank through muscle, splattering my face and neck with blood.

Malachi howled and leaped back. If I hadn't held the knife so firmly as it unsheathed itself from his body, he would have yanked it away with him. Once it was free, blood flowed warm and slick down my hands. I'd hurt him badly, but I wasn't sure if it was enough to keep him from coming back for more.

"Malachi?" Eliza was showing the first signs of concern, or possibly impatience. "Malachi, did she hurt you?"

"Yesh . . ." he said it with a slur that promised shock was on the way. "But I'mall . . . right. I'mallright." He shuffled to his feet.

Eliza permitted herself a moment's glance at him, removing the light from me to reveal her nephew clutching his dark-soaked shoulder. He raised one hand to shield his eyes. "Not at me, Tatie," he pleaded, and she remembered herself. But by the time she'd sent the beam in search of me once more, I'd fled to a safer spot behind the stairs.

"Where'd she go?" Between his blood loss and his incompetence, Malachi was growing frightened.

Eliza tried to comfort him with overconfidence. "She's not gone far, boy. Here. Take this—" She held out the light. He wavered forward and took it, but he held it like he wasn't sure what it was for. "And go
find
her," his aunt demanded.

He nodded and swung the light around, but he overestimated how far I'd gone. In truth, I wasn't more than two or three steps from my original position, but I was shielded by the jagged underside of the stairwell. My dark clothes and huddled body blended well into the debris I found there—empty barrels and crates stuffed with insulating sawdust.

Malachi wobbled deeper into the cellar—farther away from me—while Eliza began to feel her way along the wall in search of the stairs. I no longer heard Harry's pounding up above and I prayed he hadn't given up. If he couldn't open the door from outside, that meant I'd have to get the keys from Eliza and do it before Malachi came after me. In the near-complete dark, I didn't think I could wrangle the keys away and successfully find the right one before he returned.

"Where're you?" Malachi did his best to sound commanding, but I hoped he didn't seriously expect me to answer. He swiped the shelves and racks and cases with the flashlight to no avail. I crept sideways, trusting the military castoffs to give me quiet traction. They worked wonderfully, for neither of my adversaries heard me. I peeked between the boxes and watched Malachi's back retreat as he worked himself farther away.

Eliza had found the staircase. I heard her slipper tap against the bottom step and feel its careful way upwards. There was a rail bolted fast along the wall. She grabbed it and held, and the old bolts grinded against their rust-filled holes but stayed. Slowly she began to find her way up as Malachi found his way towards the back of the large room.

He must have been losing blood fast, for he was faltering more by the minute, slipping in puddles of his own making. He was bound to collapse before long; perhaps I could simply wait him out.Of course, if I let Eliza reach the top of the stairs, she would open the door and then . . . and then maybe I could throw her back in and lock them both within. If Harry confronted me I could probably take him too—or at least get away from him if I had to.

I hoped it wouldn't come to that. I liked him, and I'd hate to have to kick his ass.

Eliza was two or three steps up now. Her featherlight feet trod uncertainly onward, gripping the rail with all her weight. It groaned beneath her but it held. Anyone heavier and I'm sure it would have given way, but she was shriveled and dry, and probably fell short of a hundred pounds with rocks in her pockets.

I tried to estimate how many stairs there were altogether. I put my hands above my head and felt the underside of the incline. Each step was about a foot deep and high, and we'd come down at least twenty feet. I needed to wait until I heard her reach for her keys. Any sooner and she'd not have time to open the door before I got to her; any later, and she'd have time to lock me in with Malachi.

Then again, perhaps that wasn't the worst-case scenario. Surely she wouldn't leave him down here to bleed to death . . . would she? Well, I wouldn't have sworn to it, but I suspected she wouldn't do it on purpose. She'd have to come down there
sometime
and check on him.

Malachi was maybe fifteen yards away now, moseying aimlessly between the ceiling-tall cases. He was running low on blood and adrenaline, and it was making him slow. I saw him stagger and it made me bold. I emerged from beneath the stairs and trusted the darkness to keep me from Eliza's eyes. She was too intent on finding her way up to look down for me, and I was nearly beside her feet when we all heard Harry return.

His voice was muffled through the door, but it carried well enough. "If there's anyone right behind this door, you need to stand back."

"Harry? What are you doing up there?" Eliza yelled in her harshest tone.

"Get away from the door, ma'am," he said.

"I'm not at the door yet," she replied with petulance, and that was all the permission he needed to open fire.

Two consecutive shotgun blasts rocked the door, the second one sending it flying nearly off its hinges. I almost whooped with joy before I remembered that Harry wasn't necessarily on my side.

Eliza toppled back down to the bottom, which wouldn't have been far for me, but was hard on a woman her age. She collapsed against an empty barrel and sat there grasping at her throat, trying to recover her breath.

With the door open, light spilled across the stairs and my position was revealed. Although he was drenched with a blackish stain from his shoulder to his knees, Malachi found his second wind and began to run straight at me.

I clambered over to the stairs, tripping over the wheezing Eliza in the process, and ran head-on into Harry in his descent. Our eyes met over the shotgun which was pressed between us, and for a moment I was frightened enough to think that Eliza had armed reinforcements. Then he saw Malachi below us and shifted the gun to aim both barrels at him.

Malachi made a hasty reassessment of the situation and ran the other way, into the darkness at the back of the cellar. Harry pushed past me and prepared to make a chase, but then hesitated beside Eliza.

"He's down here somewhere," I said as much to myself as to him. "And he's hurt—I don't think he'll get far."

"He'll get farther than you might think," Harry answered. "He knows the back way."

As if to illustrate his point, somewhere in the shelves a creaking of hinges sang out and the halo of light that had indicated Malachi's position went cold. A door of some sort fell shut with a bang that rivaled the shotgun reports, and then all was quiet except for the soft, panting breaths that heaved from Eliza's chest.

"Where's he gone?" I asked, still standing stupidly, midway up the stairs. "How'd he get out of here?"

"There are ways in and out of this labyrinth of a house that even I don't know. Once upon a time it was a stop on the Underground Railroad, though it pains Miss Eliza here to know it. But trust me—in this house, there's
always
a back way."

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