I pulled back the wooden trap door on the basement floor. Duke had a ladder leaned up against the concrete. The ladder rungs disappeared in the dark pit.
“Let me go first,” I said.
“You’re kidding, right?” Jen said. “A hole in the floor?”
“What did you expect? It’s the underworld, Jen. It’s not the Ritz.”
“I didn’t expect Silence of the Lambs is what I’m saying.”
“We can’t phone it in. It’s this or you leave Leo to Nature’s course.”
“Okay,” Jen said finally. “Let’s go.”
Onto the ladder. A narrow passage downward through crumbling dirt, then sand, then clay. That odor of earth, the smell of an open grave. At the bottom a closet-sized room with a steel door set in concrete. An illuminated dial pad gave off a sickly green light.
I stared at it. I had no idea what numbers to punch.
Before my ignorance was exposed the door swung open.
Brimsnod and Duke stood in the pale glow of the underworld.
“Jen!” they said simultaneously.
The breeding of the wealthy leaves them ready, apparently, for all types of social intercourse.
“Look at you two!” Jen declared without missing a beat. “Looking great. Considering.”
“Aging,” said Brimsnod. “Death puts an end to that.”
“Forget about us,” said Duke. “You look better than ever. You got a pact with Satan going on, Jen?”
“That’s possible?” Jen said.
“Who knows? Probably. We could get Research on it. But that’s not why you’re here, right?”
“Related to Leo.”
“We know,” said Brimsnod. “We made the arrangements on our end. You want to follow along?”
Brimsnod pulled the door shut behind us.
“That sounds awfully final,” Jen said.
“For you, a two-way street,” said Duke.
The usual march through the underworld. Dust. Gloom. The faint buzz of a thousand distant conversations. The inability to scope out the limits of the space. You assume you’re in a room but you can never see the walls.
Duke, Brimsnod and Jen chattered like they were strolling down Main Street on a sunny day. The good old days! In the stable, plucking straw from their jodhpurs. That romp in the storage vault at the Institute, stared at by blank marble eyes.
“You want the tour or do we go straight to work?” Duke asked.
“The tour?” Jen said.
“Ha ha, a joke. It’s all the same. We’re almost there.”
Almost there. In the underworld, a slippery notion. I couldn’t say how much longer or further we walked. Your mind goes blank. You lose all sense.
Finally I heard a thrumming noise. Duke and Brimsnod pulled up beside a low opening in a wall that appeared out of nowhere.
“This is them,” Duke said.
Brimsnod took Jen by the shoulders and squared her up, flounced her hair, wiped away a smudge of dust above her brow. “You ready?” she asked.
“Of course I’m not ready. How do you get ready for something like this? What do I say?”
“Fatman,” said Duke. “You didn’t prep her?”
“Yes and no. I said tell the truth.”
“Jesus,” said Brimsnod.
“Okay, Jen,” Duke said. “Let’s have a sit-down here. Let’s give this our best shot.”
Tomorrow: Dead before the pyramids were built