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My little .38 was a pea-shooter compared to the hardware the goons up above were carrying, but I pulled it out. “Get behind the crates as best you can,” I said to Mrs. Fanutti’s new incarnation as Meredith from Kentucky. She brushed against me as she groped in the darkness. Her wildflower perfume had changed when mixed with fear, adding a musky humanity to her appeal. She cursed softly as she barked her shin against a wooden crate.
We waited as whoever was above tested the sound of the trapdoor beneath his feet again — stamp, stamp-stamp — then slowly walked away. It had almost sounded like a signal. A minute later the faint rectangle of light around the door vanished.
I heard her trying to pry the lid off one of the boxes with her fingers.
“What are you doing?” I asked almost inaudibly.
“If I get this open we can make molotov cocktails,” she replied no louder.
“Even if you could open the crate without alerting the whole waterfront, fire’s not the best weapon in an enclosed space, especially when you’re throwing it toward the only exit.”
She stopped her efforts. “I suppose you’re right, but they may come in handy once we get up there.”
“The cops are bound to come sooner or later. We just need to hold out until then.”
“Cops are the last people we need. Who do you think they work for? Who do you think was my husband’s chauffer for his last ride?”
“In that case, I think it’s time we left this hole.”
“What if they’re still out there?”
“There’s always going to be someone out there, but I think that last guy might have been a friend.”
“I don’t think I have any left. Besides you, I mean.”
“Cello wants you alive long enough to get your map, and he wants me alive long enough to get the map from you. I don’t know who that was up there, but he found the trapdoor and didn’t even try to open it. Wait here.” Like she had anywhere else to go. “Don’t move until I give you the all-clear.”
Without the square of light around the trapdoor it took me a bit of groping to find the ladder in the blackness. I knew the general direction but I passed it on the first try, then got turned around a bit. Soon enough my outstretched fingers found the smooth wood and headed I headed up. I felt the planks pushing down on my hat. I reached up and the bolt was where I remembered it. Odd to have a bolt on this side except for contingencies exactly like this one, but then you would have another exit as well, wouldn’t you? The steel bolt slid in its groove silently. I lifted the heavy door just enough to peek out.
It was dark in the warehouse, but after the total blackness below I could see well enough. Nothing moved. It would have been easy enough to hide in those shadows, however, and there could be someone standing five feet behind me, just waiting to put a bullet into the back of my head. That kind of thinking doesn’t get you anywhere, though. Just ask General Custer. I pushed the door open a little farther to extend my field of vision. Still nothing. It was useless I knew, but I decided to move quickly in case there was someone behing me. Perhaps in the darkness I’d only be wounded by the barrage from the Thompson machine gun.
I took a few deep breaths and flung myself up the ladder, twisting to look back over the thick wood. I found myself sitting on the edge of the hole, losing my grip on the massive door and dropping it painfully on my thighs. I almost dropped my gun as well, but I was happy to have only bruises as I looked and found no one there. I sat as silently as I could, catching my breath. There was a time when that maneuver would have been easier. I lifted the door off my legs and hauled myself out. Below I could hear Meredith moving around. I hadn’t given her the signal, but it would just make more noise to stop her now. I pulled the trap the rest of the way open and watched the shadows as she emerged, my coat still draped over her shoulders.
We slid to a wall as quietly as possible and Meredith led me toward a door opposite the one we had first come in by. I was hobbling along pretty badly, walking like a constipated crab as I tried to work the kinks out of my bruised legs. There was a form lying near the door in a splash of moonlight from a skylight. I kept to the shadows but my escort gasped and stepped up to the corpse. She knelt by the dead man. “Mick,” she said. She put her hand in his hair and it came back dark and sticky. She looked up at me, her skin pale in the moonlight, her eyes lost in shadow. Her voice was eerily flat, the voice of Lola Fanutti. “Whoever did this is a dead man.”
I believed her.
Tune in next time for the conclusion of: The Cat’s Claws!