“During the second world war, when a bomb fell,” Inspector Simnova explained, “residents would rush down to those cellars, dotted about under their houses and various places of importance in the city. One they were sure that they would be safe out of the shelters, the families would return to their ‘upstairs homes’; if they were not able to, due to a wrecked home, a fallen bomb, or some other thing like a broken trapdoor, they were able to make their way to a neighbour’s cellar where they could rest for a while, or make their exit to the streets. There, they were able to do whatever they needed to whilst their house was unusable, you understand?
“When the war was over, each family blocked up their cellar-passage doors accordingly. I didn’t think that any of them were still active. It is a matter of privacy, you understand?”
He having repeated the phrase, I nodded feverishly to show that I did indeed understand; in the dark, it was hard to see one head from another, let alone our expressions. I half expected to be talking to the wall, not my acquaintance. Even my hands became blurs.
After a time passed that I could not account for, since it had rushed past whilst we were shrouded in darkness, we came to the end of the dark path; a set of steps was the only way up out to the snow. These steps were also coated with mould, and they too sat carved out the furthest stone-brick wall from us in another small cellar-space. My eyes turned upwards, and I spotted another trapdoor, identical to the other we had descended.
Inspector Simnova was two steps ahead of me, on the top steps before I had even seen him climb the first step, and he was already trying the hatch.
“It’s locked, but there’s a latch,” he called down to me.
With one click, the room was open to the blinding brightness outside.
I climbed up after Inspector Simnova, looking around the street in which we had emerged.
“Well, well, look where we are,” he muttered, as soon as I was in earshot.
“Where are we?” I asked, scratching cobwebs out my hair.
“Look around, Miss King. Do you recognise any ‘landmarks’?”
I did as he had said, and found myself gazing at the most obvious landmark for a while; the grand structure of Karkroff Hall, complete with its line of tourists, stuck out like a sour thumb in front of my view. I had been so stunned by the contrast of the dark tunnels and the white sunlight, that I had not noticed the obvious until it had been pointed out.
We had gone full circle, our tunnel had led around to the road off Vanhelm Street.
“Oh, right,” I finally replied.
I turned back to face the Inspector and to observe the house that we had popped up beside. It was a two-story cottage with a red-tiled roof, similar to that of the surrounding houses. The cottage was small, but well lived in; a green Frisbee throwing-disk poked its head out onto the roof, a skateboard peered out a bush, and I could see that all the windows were adorned with many cutesy ornaments.
“Well,” the Inspector repeated for the third time, “this is certainly something.”
“Oh yes?” I replied. “I can understand that it’s interesting that it comes out near the Hall, but what has that got to do with-?”
I was talking to thin air, as the Inspector was already marching back over to Karkroff Hall, taking larger-than-normal strides.
I hurried to keep up with him, but, before I could ask questions, he had whipped out his phone and was threading Russian through it at ever more rapid speeds. We both made our way to the Hall, and Carrie, suddenly appearing, grinned as she, standing at the gate, watched our approach. I’d forgotten that she’d come with us. She waved whilst Inspector Simnova continued his talking. In a snap, however, his phone was in his pocket, and his hand gently rested on her arm; she batted her long lashes, but I couldn’t see the point of the attraction.
“What happened?” Caroline addressed the Inspector, not me.
“Where were you?” I interrupted.
Carrie shrugged, still gazing in Inspector Simnova’s direction.
“I left when you two disappeared underground. Didn’t you think it a little silly…?”
“So, you went back to the Hall straightaway?”
“Of course; what’s with the ‘straightaway’, Agnetha? Don’t you trust me?”
“I was just wondering…” I insisted. “Carry on.”
“I’ve only been here five minutes.” Carrie shrugged. “I reckoned that you’d hit nothing in your travels, and then you’d make your way back here soon enough. Imagine how surprised I was when you emerged in the street beside Nicky’s home.”
She stopped me in my thoughts again.
“Nicky lives there?” I asked. But, of course, there was nowhere else for her to live, whilst still being a neighbour to the Karkroffs. “I should have seen…”
The Inspector turned to me.
“Nevertheless, Miss King, I shall have to make my way back to the station. It seems that you have free rein of our guests now.”
“Yes, but to do what? You’ve left me at another blank.”
He ignored me, turning so quickly as the wind tugged at his slick hair and whipped at his face.