Companions of Fear
"Come, Ms. March, take a walk with me." Chinslow rose and stepped from behind his desk, still holding the 45. He offered his guest a hand and she accepted it as help getting out of the rocker.
"You can leave your bag here, it'll be safe."
"I'm not sure I want to go for a walk," she said.
"If I meant you harm, you'd know it already."
"Follow me. I want to show you something."
They left the den and walked in silence through the halls of the huge house. Chinslow's somnolent gait gave Nestis time to take in the chandeliers and painted family portraits, the teak furniture and flowered carpets.. They passed through the stainless steel kitchen, through a room decorated with hunting trophies, the heads of beasts with shiny glass eyes. At the very back of the house, Chinslow stopped at a glass door that led out onto a stone porch. "Wait here for a second," he said and left the door slightly open behind him. Nestis felt the chill of the night creep in around her and closed it over. She watched his darker shadow against the dark stop at a table and lean over it. A spark and the flame of a cigarette lighter materialized. Moments later, she could make out his form from the light of an old storm lantern. He turned and waved to her to follow. She did.
"It's getting cold as shit out here tonight," he said.
"Spare me your crude language," she told him.
Chinslow laughed. "Why not?"
They crossed the patio, descended a set of steps and headed out across an enormous lawn. Nestis stayed close to him. "I'm getting tired," she said. "It's been a big day of abduction and threats. Do you have a room for me?"
"Yeah," he said.
"Where are we going?"
"Just back in the woods at the end of the lawn. I'm gonna show you something."
"Show me what?"
"I'm disappointed," Ms. March. "Shouldn't you know that?"
"Some things are murky," she said.
"Guess," he said.
"I'd do better if you put that gun away."
The wind picked up and leaves blew all around them. Nestis's dress lifted to her thighs. Chinslow hunkered into his blue jacket. The flame in the lantern wavered between life and death and then came back strong.
They reached the edge of the woods. The boss held the lantern high for her to catch a glimpse of the path ahead through the trees. Outside their limited bubble of glow the night was pitch black. Off to the West came the sound of breaking branches, the snort of some creature.
"What was that?" she said and grabbed his arm.
"Relax," he said, moving forward. "That's just the old hart, watching us."
"Your heart?" she asked.
"No, h-a-r-t, a red stag. I had this one, Furfur, imported from the UK."
"You've surprised me," she said.
"Sometimes, not often, I surprise myself."
Fifty yards in and the dark path opened onto a clearing. By the light of the lantern she could see a cylindrical concrete structure rising about three feet out of a small hill a few yards in front of them. The wind shook the trees. She turned and saw something moving at the tree line just beyond the glow of the lantern.
"Once we get inside, we can warm up," said Chinslow, who led onward up the short hill. At the top, he set the lantern down on the lip of the concrete cylinder. Nestis could now make out that there was a steel, portal door just inside the opening of the structure.
"What is it?" she said. "An old fallout shelter? A tomb?"
"Sort of," he told her and reached down the front of his shirt to retrieve a chain with a key on it.
"I don't want to go down there."
He found the keyhole and inserted the key. A sound of machinery came from the cylinder and the steel door lifted automatically up and back on two sturdy hinges. Chinslow grabbed the lantern before the movement of the door could knock it over. He handed it to Nestis and said, "Over the top with you. There's a metal ladder just inside the opening."
"I think not," she said.
Chinslow sighed. "Lady, I can only take so much of your bullshit. Get in."
"I want to know I'm going to be coming out."
He closed his eyes. His face looked ancient in the lantern light. "Read my mind," he said.
"I'm cold and scared," she said. "That doesn't help."
"I'll wait," he said and leaned against the concrete.
Nestis closed her eyes, stopped breathing and made her left hand into a fist. In the quiet that followed, just beneath the wind, she heard the hart again, another snort. A half- minute passed, and she said, "OK, I'll go in."
Chinslow stood straight. He took her hand and helped her up onto the edge of the concrete circle. "When you get down there, don't touch anything," he said. "I'll be right behind you."
She held on tight to the ladder rails with her left hand and the wrist of her right, which held the lantern. Slowly, she backed down the steps, through the gloom of the cylinder, breathing rapidly and trembling. There was an echo, the sound of Chinslow climbing onto the ladder. Just as she heard the mechanics of the steel portal door whir to life, her foot touched down onto a smooth floor.
She turned and the lantern revealed an underground room with comfortable furniture, and posters on the smooth concrete walls that were fake four paned windows, showing, in one, the scene of a snow capped mountain, the forested slope leading to it, and in the other, a palm tree on a beach, crystal clear water to the blue horizon. In the center of the room, still partially in shadow, there lay, raised on a platform to knee-level, what appeared to be by its shape and size, a coffin.
"Have a seat, Ms. March. Would you care for a cocktail?"
Electric lights came on in the room.
"You can douse that lantern," he said.
It was a coffin made of glass, and she could see a body lying in it. She sat back on the couch and stared at the staring eyes.
"I have Count Brown's," he called from a small bar across the room.
"Not the lemon one," Nestis said as if in a trance. The body before her was perfectly preserved, perfectly naked.
"Only the Long Nights for me," he said. "When he carried the drinks over to join her, he said, "I see you've met my wife."
"Lovely," she said, took the Count from him and drank deeply.
He sat next to her on the couch. "This is what I spent that two million on," he said, pointing to the coffin. "It's got inert gasses."
"To preserve her?" asked Nestis.
"I had her in one of those deep freeze deals back when that's what the best of the technology was. But, you know, it's all about the inert gasses now."
"What are you saving her for?"
"In the future, when they have a cure for her."
"Was she sick?"
"Hunting accident," he said. "When I brought Furfur over, it was to hunt him on the estate like in olden times, on horseback. My wife, Harris, loved to ride and shoot. If only she was as accurate with a gun as she was good looking," he said and waved his hand in the corpse's direction.
Nestis studied the dead woman's face -- the bottom lip pulled slightly down to the left as if by an invisible fish hook, the creasing around the nose, the furrowing of the brow combined to make it look as if she'd perished on the verge of a complaint.
"She'd chased the stag down, cornered it in a gully with steep sides. I was far behind her, riding hard to catch up. I was determined to put at least one bullet in the beast I'd paid for. It all happened before I got there. I think the stag attacked her horse. She aimed the sawed off shot gun at it, but the horse lurched away from a thrust of Furfur's antlers. The thing has giant antlers. Anyway, her shot went off and nailed her mount right in the back of the head. The horse went over like a stone with her underneath it."
The pale body floating in the glass coffin was slightly twisted.
"So in the future I revive her, and we hunt the hart again," he said, took a long drink of the Long Nights and made a face.
"You mean you'll go through it again?"
"When it first happened, I sent Mink and Gage out into the forest of the estate with the express purpose of killing that fucking Furfur. But they never found it. The only time they ever failed me. The creature never shows himself to me. I only hear him in the dark."
"This explains how you came up with the powerball plan," she said.
"This is all out of love," he said, nodding to the coffin, a tear in his eye. "Top of the line. Inert gasses out the asshole. I knew that was something you didn't know about me, and I wanted you to."
Nestis remained silent but shook her head and finished off the rest of her drink. A few minutes passed, and then she said, "The dampness in the concrete is getting to my joints. If my arthritis acts up, I'll never be able to climb the ladder."
"Don't you want another drink?" he said. "Harris could use the company."
"She seems very nice, but I don't want to get stuck down here."
Later, as they walked back across the lawn, wrapped in lantern glow against the night, she shouted to him above the wind, "Your wife didn't die under a horse."
He stopped walking and turned to her, putting his mouth closer to her ear. "Very good," he said, "and what else?"
"She wasn't dead when you froze her."
He nodded and put the 45 in his jacket pocket. "You pass the test," he said. "Next stop, 30 million."