Leaving the house was cheating. Not technically — there were no actual rules to mercy, except that you stopped trying to kill your opponent when they cried “mercy” — but if Zebra had found Katters out here, sitting on the hood of the car, he would have cried “foul” first. And he knew she would have done the same, if she’d found him.
But cheating is only cheating if you get caught.
He sat on the hood of their rented, puke-green four-door and stared up at the house. In the interest of not getting caught, he needed to kill time until he was sure she was far away from the foyer, so she wouldn’t see him sneak back inside.
He did like the house. He almost wanted to keep it, but it would never be worth the hassle or the expense of owning a second home in a different country. It was too far away to be convenient, too close to be exotic.
But what he really wanted was to know why it was his now, in the first place.
It wasn’t a mystery why Great-Uncle Anthony hadn’t left it to any of his many, more-deserving relatives. Great-Uncle Anthony was even more of a black sheep than Zebra was, and had been pushed away from the family when Zebra was very young. But that was just it. Zebra barely remembered the man. He had never been invited to the house for a holiday, had no fond memories of bonding with his great-uncle over whatever it was people did for fun in Bayhedge. Had no fond memories of his great-uncle at all.
Why had the house been left to anyone? Why hadn’t Great-Uncle Anthony died in as much familial obscurity as he had lived, and let the house go to the bank, or whatever friends he’d gathered in his old age?
It was time to go back inside. If he waited too long, Katters would loop back around to the foyer, and he’d be stuck out there until she went back upstairs again. And his butt was getting cold.
He slid down from the hood of the car, dusted off the seat of his slacks, and crept up the porch steps. He kept his hand in his pocket, on the derringer he’d stolen from Katters’ luggage.
The front door was dead silent when he snuck through it, and the foyer was empty but for uncomfortable furniture, sweeping stairways, and the deep shadows those threw against the panelled walls. His opponent was nowhere to be seen. Exactly as he had predicted. And if his prediction held true, she would be in the library upstairs, listening for any signs of him. If he waited just a little longer, she would come back downstairs, and he could get the drop on—
He fell backwards, caught himself but not his breath. Had he — no, the safety was still on. Then who? And why?
His heart was pounding. In his stomach, in his throat, everywhere except where it was supposed to be. Everything else was numb. Hollow.
Another bang, and Katters came running out from behind the stairs.
Not a gunshot. A door, opened with more force than could ever have been considered necessary. Jesus Christ, he was going to hyperventilate.
She ran up to him. She looked just as startled as he was, her ears pinned back and her scales that dark colour they turned when she was unhappy. Good.
She grabbed him by his vest and he swatted her away.
“Do not—” he said.
She looked away from him, back at the stairs. She took a step toward them, then back, turned back to him. She couldn’t decide what to do with her hands, gesticulating with them like she was in the middle of an in-depth and violent lecture.
Zebra got his breath back and his nerves started to settle. “What happened?” he demanded, more than a little angry.
She opted to cross her arms, but that didn’t stop her from moving. She swayed non-committally, like shrugging had become a much longer and more involved process while he had been outside. She took a breath, letting it out through her teeth, and she would have looked calm if it weren’t for her wide, wild eyes darting here, there, and everywhere.
“There’s a cellar,” she said, finally and without inflection. “The door’s behind the stairs.”
“No, there isn’t.” He humoured her enough to go behind the stairs to look, but there was no possible way anything could fit back there. The stairwell wasn’t deep enough.
But, sure enough, there was a door. Across from the door to the washroom, close enough that opening both at once would require some coordination. It was identical to every other door in the house, down to the polished, brass doorknob.
“I thought I’d hide down there,” she said, her voice still flat. “And ambush you.”
“No,” he said, trailing the word. It took him a moment to find any other words — “no” seemed to cover his feelings on the matter perfectly. “This can’t be here.”
He circled the stairs, stopping at the other side. The point between them, where they met at the second floor, did not seem thick enough to allow any door that didn’t just open back onto the foyer, right where he was standing. But he couldn’t be positive. Not without looking at the blueprints, or taking an axe to something.
Maybe it was decorative. He went back to the door and pulled at it, stumbling when it actually swung open. There were more stairs behind it, leading down into pitch darkness. A subtle breeze blew over his feet, chilling his ankles.
“I guess,” he said, and stuck his hand through the door, fishing for the wall that logic said had to be there. “I guess, maybe there’s just enough room?”
He found nothing but air, no matter how far into the darkness he reached.
Katters had started pacing, toward the front door and then back toward him.
“What’s down there?” he asked her.
She rocked her head from one side to the other, like she was working out a kink.
“I couldn’t find a light.”
“But what happened?”
“I couldn’t find a light. It was dark. I don’t want to go back down.”
“Why?” He looked back at the doorway, leaning in to peer down the stairs. He couldn’t see any further than a couple feet. “What’s down there?”
She stopped pacing. She wasn’t quite facing him, had her shoulders angled away. Her hands started fidgeting again, her fingers tapping against her elbows, and she uncrossed one to chew on her thumb-claw.
She looked small, despite being taller than him.
“Do we have to stay here?” Her tone finally took on some depth, a note of desperation. “This place is weirding me out. We could stay in a motel or something. Hell, we could sleep in the car, it’s not that small. Or heck! We could just go back home! Five hundred miles isn’t that far, not really — we could be home before the night’s out if we don’t make any stops.”
Zebra ran a hand along the inside of the wall next to the door, feeling the curve of the stairwell, searching for a light. It felt rough and unfinished, like plywood, and he pulled his hand back before he found anything. “I guess you could go. But I need to finish assessing the house.”
“Fuck, right.” She looked longingly at the front door. “Well,” she continued, but stopped there.
He cocked his head and stepped toward her, carefully, like he was trying to soothe a frightened animal. “How about,” he said, “we go out and get dinner, and then we’ll look at this whole thing with full stomachs.”
She sighed and shrugged, the tension leaving her as she resigned herself to the compromise. “I guess. So long as we can get out of here for a while.”
Zebra smiled and closed the cellar door.
The foyer suddenly felt very warm.