Carmen and I could have lost some important seconds by engaging in a how-could-I-be-so-stupid contest, but we mutually decided not to bother. We both knew it would have ended up a draw.
If the Malone home was a good example of the breed, whatever elegance and purity of design the Craftsman-era architects had built into the floor plans of their bungalows did not extend into basement layout. Holly’s basement was a dark, confusing warren of tiny rooms with low ceilings. The aroma in the cellar was of moist concrete, standing water, and air freshener. I thought it was the same flowers-in-a-can Glade that Sherry liked to make such a show of spraying after I used the bathroom.
On our way down to the basement I was a few risers above Carmen. The stairs didn’t squeak as we descended. Not a peep, which I thought was evidence of rather impressive construction.
Rooms opened up onto each side of the postage-stamp-size landing at the bottom of the stairs. We paused at the landing, our bodies touching at our hips. The phone was still at my ear. Once again I whispered, “Gibbs?”
Nothing came back into the earpiece. I shook my head at Carmen. She nodded and tilted her head to the left, so that’s the direction we headed first.
She was still walking point.
Cellar noises? Nothing I didn’t expect. Furnace sighs, plumbing burps, old-house creaks. But no more pounding. Above us the scampering of feet as children and parents rushed from the house had stopped.
The first room to our left was a furnace room with an alcove that had a workbench built in under a window well.
In the dark basement my eyes found shapes but no details. As I followed Carmen toward the door that would take us to the next surprise space in the maze, my foot brushed something on the floor that I hadn’t seen. Carmen heard the noise I made. She stopped.
I crouched down and felt along the cold concrete surface with my hand.
I lifted a woman’s shoe. A clog. Not really a clog; Sherry used another name for shoes like it, but I couldn’t remember what. Why? I really didn’t care.
Had Holly been wearing clogs in the kitchen that morning? I should have remembered, but the picture in my head of Holly preparing the turkey didn’t go all the way down to the floor.
Carmen leaned over to touch the shoe. Feeling what it was, she took it from me and set it aside. With her head close enough that I could feel her breath on my cheek, she said, “Let’s go.”
The next room was small and seemed to be full of stuff. Holly probably called it her storage room. But I could tell from the haphazard pattern of shadows that it was the place she stashed the junk she didn’t know what else to do with. Storage is one thing. Sticking stuff in a room is another thing entirely. There’s a big difference. Sherry did storage. I stuck stuff in rooms.
Carmen’s eyes must have adjusted to the dark better than mine. She found a path through the stuff, and we were across that room and through another door in seconds.
The next room we entered was a bathroom. A window well provided enough light that I realized that “bathroom” was a generous description for the space. It was a tiny concrete room with inelegant plumbing and a couple of fixtures that existed in the time warp between modern and antique. Despite the shadows I could see streaks of rust on the porcelain surfaces of both the sink and the toilet.
Carmen reached behind her and held out her hand to stop my progress. Her fingers found me just below my belt.
It certainly stopped my progress.
Through the open door in front of Carmen I could see a square shape emerging from the darkness.
A washing machine. Maybe a dryer.
I retraced all my steps to the landing at the foot of the stairs and opened the door that Carmen and I hadn’t taken the first time. The room I entered was the largest room in the basement and was furnished with somebody else’s things. A night-light spread a shadowy brilliance across its lowest reaches. From the looks of the bases of the pieces, I guessed that these were Holly’s grandmother’s things. Every one-sofa, chest, chair, table-was ornate, heavy, grandmothery.
Four long strides, and I was across the room and standing at the door that I was almost certain led into the laundry room. Carmen was waiting at the other door on the far side of the basement.
My role was straightforward. I was to keep anyone from exiting through this door until I went in on Carmen’s signal. That was the plan.
From then on we would improvise. And hopefully try not to shoot each other in the process.
The phone call with Gibbs was over. I’d stuffed the cell back in my pocket.
My handgun was ready.
I was wondering precisely what the signal was going to be when I heard Carmen yell, “Police! Freeze!” and figured that was probably it.
I pulled open the door and stepped inside the laundry room in a flash, though it turned out there was little cause for hurry.