Thirty minutes later found them stepping out of a cab in front of the Haldstad. Jo’s eyes were glued to her phone display; Mike swept his gaze over the building from side to side, top to bottom, eyes glowing a cool blue as data about the site was projected directly to him.
“What on earth could we possibly want with this place? I can’t see anything in its history that fits with any of the other holdings we’ve gone after.” Jo had spent the ride over digging into the Haldstad’s past. Built nearly two centuries before, it had started life as the burgeoning town’s police headquarters. The fire that Dunn had mentioned had raged through the first floor and up to the upper floor, though the cause of the blaze was poorly understood; it was believed to have been arson of some sort. After being repaired, it had continued to house the town inspectors for several decades before it was decommissioned and ultimately sold to a succession of owners who mostly used it for retail spaces.
It bore little resemblance today to how it had looked when first built. Originally designed as a two-storey building, it now rose five storeys high and had been renovated and restored many times. She continued, “This place has been torn down and rebuilt so many times there can’t be anything of value left, can there?”
“You never know. Sometimes it’s not the building itself, but the location. They’ve got their reasons, and it doesn’t really matter to us what they are.” Mike spoke with the absent tone of someone engaged in his own research. “You’re probably right though. With the history this place has, I doubt we’ll find much.”
There was no current tenant, and the arrangements had all been made with the property owner. Mike had the key and let them in the rather unimposing entrance.
Jo half expected the interior to be fire-blackened and burned, despite knowing better; instead, she was greeted by the sight of what looked to be a drugstore that had been shut down for a few years and seen better days. Rows of mostly empty shelves sat in the gloomy interior, cobwebs festooned every corner, and little pellets suggested a variety of rodents had taken up residence.
“What a lovely place,” she murmured. Mike smiled and headed straight for the lights. They didn’t work.
“Hope you’ve got a flashlight handy,” he said. She held up her phone, brightness cranked up to max; the device was as bright as any dedicated flashlight. Mike snorted, but nodded in approval. “Nice,” he said. “Those things do have some surprising uses, don’t they.”
“Yeah, it comes in handy sometimes. I’ll have to follow you though, I won’t be able to use it for much else while it’s lighting my way.”
He nodded and they headed down the aisles toward the basement entrance.
The beams of their lights probed the darkness down the stairs. The steps were solid concrete, and the hand rail was still firmly attached to the wall. Mike stood at the top, Jo just behind him; they methodically ran their light over the walls, Mike working on those further away with his more directional light, Jo using her phone to light up the closer walls.
It didn’t look terribly promising, Jo thought. The basement did have the look of ancient construction, but there were plain signs of upkeep over the years. Some sections of concrete were clearly much newer than the rest of the walls, which were made of brick.
They moved slowly down the stairs. After almost two centuries, the concrete steps, a relic of the original building, had worn down significantly toward the center. She had to be a little careful to avoid losing her balance and falling.
The basement showed clear signs of having served as storage for the drug store, and likely the previous tenants before them as well. Broken cardboard shipping boxes littered the dark space, stray packing peanuts lay on the ground or floated in small puddles where the damp had collected, and the floor surface itself was dirty and scuffed visibly despite the months of dust that had accumulated.
“It’s a bit of a fixer-upper,” Mike said dryly, inspecting several of the puddles more closely, undoubtedly recording the whole inspection, as Jo herself as. He frowned. “Does this look like condensation to you? I’d say it looks more like a leak in the plumbing somewhere.”
She looked at the puddle, but there was nothing special about it; there were pipes near it though, and they were streaked with rust. She followed them upward with her eyes, up the wall to where it met the ceiling. Her hand twitched a bit, and she realized she was tracing a climbing route up the wall; another moment and she realized she’d traced a route to a destination she hadn’t even consciously noticed at first.
There were a regular series of indentations in the walls, very narrow, but large enough to maybe get a hand in. They were almost flush with the ceiling, and looked like darker patches of shadow. She moved closer, letting the ambient glow of her phone illuminate one of them better. Mike followed her gaze.
“Huh, good eye, Jo.”
“Thanks,” she said absently; the recess looked deep, and there was something inside. “I’m going to climb up and see if I can pull that out,” she said.
“You could wait until we get more equipment down here, or at least better lights,” he replied, but she was already testing several handholds in the bricks higher up on the wall. In short order she was clinging to the recessed section she’d seen the object in, her feet swinging almost a meter off the floor. She braced her feet tight against the brick wall below and held on with one arm, reaching inside with the other.
She got hold of the object, which was largish and heavy; it felt like a box, maybe of metal. “Mike, come grab this, I won’t be able to carry it down, I’ll have to pass it to you.”
He stood ready to catch it as she pulled it from its resting place, then caught it as it fell. Jo climbed back down and took a look at what she’d retrieved.
The object was indeed a box; a metal one, long and wide but very shallow, corroded green with age and with an ornate lock on the front. It was heavily built, and the lock was of a very old design. Jo’s enthusiasm for the past didn’t extend to expertise in ancient locks or boxes, but she thought it wouldn’t have looked out of place around the time of the building’s origin.
Mike held his light for her; she lifted the box and inspected it carefully. The corrosion wasn’t too bad, all things considered. Certainly better than she might’ve guessed given the dampness of the environment and the apparent age of the box. “Think this thing could’ve been here since the police used this place?”
“Don’t know. It’s possible. I don’t know how you spotted that hole. I’d have walked past it a thousand times and never seen it.”
“Just looking for handholds,” she said, eyes on the lock.
“I climb. Gives me the habit of looking for places to hang on.”
“Huh. Handy,” he said, unconscious of the pun. She stifled a groan and rolled her eyes anyway. The lock stubbornly refused to offer up its secrets to her, and a quick test proved that either the lock was engaged or the corrosion was bad enough to stick the box closed.
“It’s jammed, we’re not going to get this thing open here, I don’t think. Let’s take it back with us.”
“Can’t. We don’t own it yet. We’ll report on it, then open it on the property and investigate what’s inside.”
She sighed, frustrated. “Okay. We should bring some stools with us next time. There are a lot more of these little cubby-holes, and who knows what we’ll find in those?”
Mike nodded. “Sounds like a plan.” He sat the mysterious box in a dry corner.
When they got upstairs, Mike frowned and looked at the front entrance. “Hey, did you leave the door open when we got here?”
“No … I’m pretty sure I closed it.” It was open now, and creaking in the breeze. The sound of the rain was soft but clearly audible from where they stood.
They looked around, but there was nobody else visible. “I’m sure I closed it!”
“I know, I remember you closing it too,” he said. “Hello? Anyone there?”
The only reply was a creaking of the floor upstairs. They glanced at each other. “I don’t like this,” Jo said, voice low.
“Keep your cool,” Mike said, voice tinged with concern. “It could be anything.”
Jo had some private doubts about that; stepping lightly, she crossed the floor to the front door and put her finger to her lips, then pointed back toward the basement. Mike nodded in surprise. She couldn’t read his expression in the gloomy lighting, but he turned and headed back the way they’d come. She waited until he’d had enough time to descend, then pushed the door closed firmly before following him as quickly and quietly as possible.
“This is ridiculous,” he whispered as she reached the top of the stairs. He hadn’t gone down.
“I have a bad feeling. A really bad feeling,” she said. It was more than just a gut feeling; she was starting to feel a little like she had when she’d seen those odd people the last Friday. The head-rush feeling was different though. Much less intense. Maybe I’m imagining it, she told herself.
“If your bad feeling is right, we’ve just shut ourselves in with whoever it is,” Mike growled, sounding like he had his own bad feeling.
They waited, the silence of the basement pressing in like a pressure wave. Jo tried to imagine she was on a climb, an overhang, with just her hands between her and a long, fatal fall. That kind of pressure, she could handle. Waiting, scared in the dark, not knowing what was coming, if anything—that was harder.
The smallest sound reached them from upstairs, and Jo stiffened. In a building as old as this, it could have been floor boards settling as easily as a footstep. After several moments she let out a slow breath; there was no followup sound.
They waited a few minutes more; her eyes were beginning to adjust to the gloom. She could just make out Mike’s outline, black against the deep, dark gray of the room. He was shifting his weight from foot to foot, no doubt as impatient as she was to be out of this situation.
She finally started edging toward the staircase, willing herself to make no sound. The scrapes and shuffles of her shoes on the floor made her cringe, but she kept going, moving slower; still nothing from upstairs.
The door at the top of the stairs stood open, just as it had stood when they originally found it. It outlined a patch of lighter gray; she couldn’t make out anything at the top. She stood by the foot of the stairs and they waited a bit more.
Ten minutes must have passed by the time Mike dared the faintest whisper. “I don’t think there’s anyone there.”
“Get the box,” she replied.
“If we leave it, we risk losing it entirely.”
He was silent for a moment, silhouette unmoving against the gray. “Alright, fine.” He very, very slowly knelt down next to the box; she could see him fumbling around, unable to see it in the dark. She held her breath; his coat sleeve caught on the box and dragged it a moment, making a noise that she’d barely have heard under normal circumstances, but sounded like the collision of two planets to her here and now.
“Crap,” he whispered.