Humming a Burt Bacharach song she couldn’t remember the name of, Sharon Walters rode the elevator to the basement. It was a song she’d heard that morning on the radio while her husband, Harry, dressed for work. She’d made him his cup of coffee and prepared his turkey and Swiss cheese sandwich with a pickle for lunch. They’d kissed good-bye; he said “I love you,” and she repeated the same. She never liked to say “I love you, too.” It didn’t sound meaningful, more like an uninspired echo.
The elevator rattled its way down through the old office building as Sharon watched out the diamond-shaped window at the floors passing by with the speed of a senior citizen walking his last steps. Sighing, she glanced at her watch to make sure time was moving forward and not coming to a halt. In two hours she was having lunch with Marcy Browne, one of her co-workers, and then she was leaving for her weekly acupuncture session. Though she’d been afraid of the needles at first, acupuncture turned out to be a great way to relieve the weekly tension. After having lunch with Marcy, as much as she liked the woman, she needed something to help her relax. Marcy tended to be anxious and self-conscious of everything she did and said, and that could get overwhelming.
The elevator came to rest and the outside door slid open, then the gate, and finally the inside door. Cool, musty air—tainted with the funky stink like something had died and never been found—crept in and enveloped her, made her cringe, and reminded her of how much she hated the basement. Stepping out into the cavernous area, she was greeted by the buzz and flicker of the fluorescent lights that bleached everything white and made the shadows more starkly black than they should have been.
It was rare that she came down here, but she needed empty boxes to pack up files, and there were none left in the Osprey Publishing office. Without further hesitation, she started across the basement to the stacks of boxes against the far wall.
Something skittered above her. She stopped and stared at the four rows of fluorescents, wondering what was up there, but the lights kept her from seeing anything close to the ceiling.
Get the boxes and get out, she told herself.
But she didn’t move. Her gaze sought the dark space above the banks of light where the unsettling noise came from. Darker shadows wriggled beyond the lights; it had to be her imagination. The sound probably came from somewhere else and she imagined that it came from the ceiling. There were rats down here, and it was most likely one of them had made the sound unless there were bats down here as well.
Leo, the building’s creepy maintenance man, had his office near the elevator. He was too big and spoke too small, making him—in her eyes—the perfect serial killer. And here she was by herself.
That motivated her feet to move. Four sizes of boxes leaned against the far wall, and as she approached the stacks, she looked from one to the next so by the time she reached them she could grab the right ones and flee back upstairs to the fifth floor and the safety of Osprey Publishing. The first ones were too small. The last ones, of course, were too big. Second or third? Third. Those should be just fine to—
The quick, sharp sound of an electric buzz filled the air.
The stink of ozone dropped down and enveloped her.
She glanced up in time to see the fluorescents illuminate too brightly, flicker several times, and then grow dim as hungry blackness spread through them until all the light was consumed and the basement was left in darkness.
“Oh, my God.” Sharon felt her pulse quicken and glanced around, praying her eyes adjusted to the dark before the rats found her. Holding her hand up, she couldn’t see it in front of her face. “All right. No need to panic. The emergency lights should come on any minute.” Once the lights came on she’d hurry to the stairs—they were faster than the elevator—and leave the darkness. Someone else could come and get the boxes.
Her eyes adjusted to the dark enough so she could see her hands in front of her, but little else around her. If only she had a flashlight to see her way out, but she hadn’t thought to bring one with her.
Emergency lights flickered on, casting the basement in bloodred illumination, pushing the shadows back, but not nearly enough. At the corner of her eye something twisted in the shadows, but when she looked it was gone.
Get upstairs, now, she told herself.
With each step Sharon took, a feeling of exhaustion overwhelmed her until she found that taking another step was too much effort. What’s wrong with me? I shouldn’t be this tired. I feel so worn out. Trudging forward, she felt herself about to collapse, but kept moving, afraid that if she did stop something bad would happen.
Don’t stop now. She paused and listened for a sound or something that would tell her where Leo—it was Leo, wasn’t it?—was.
Sharon almost called out, telling Leo to stop screwing around. But another part of her mind told her this wasn’t Leo, this wasn’t anyone, but some thing that her rational mind refused to accept.
The lights went out and there are rats down here. That’s all. No monsters, no boogeymen lurking in the shadows.
But no matter how much she tried to persuade her irrational self that there was a rational explanation, the more the fear gripped her, sending her into a panic attack.
Without another thought, she rushed to the stairs, gripped the banister, put her foot on the first step, felt her sweaty palm slip on the cold metal handrail, and stared up into darkness.
Was someone waiting up there? It couldn’t be a thing because there were no such things as monsters—except wicked humans. No matter how she felt or what her imagination whispered to her, it was a person—probably Leo—who watched her, scared her just because they could. Leo was like that, a real bastard when he wanted to be.
She needed to go up the stairs and out into the lobby, and then she’d take the stairs to the fifth floor and the safety of Osprey Publishing. She would’ve gone back to the elevator, but if there was someone down here stalking her, they could get her before the elevator doors closed. Just climb, Sharon.
Her legs refused to move; fear at what could be waiting for her in the darkness at the top of the stairs held her paralyzed. All she could do was glance toward the main basement, hoping she really was imagining things.
Then she heard a soft metallic rasping in the ceiling moving in her direction.
Come on, Sharon, she told herself. Move. Please.
A tiny shadow bolted across the floor, and though she convinced herself that it was only a rat, it was all she needed to get her legs moving. She fled up the stairs, certain that the something was just behind, gaining on her, its gaze boring into her back; any second its cold hands would grasp her legs and pull her back down into the basement and—
Stop it! Just get upstairs and everything will be fine.
The door to safety was right ahead of her.
A few more steps and—
From above her the metallic sound echoed—something was slithering through the ceiling’s metal framework. She focused on the door and safety and not the nerve-racking sound of metal on metal that came from the ceiling. She shivered and whimpered and against her better judgment glanced above her head.
A metal cable snaked down toward her. It was nearly as wide around as her arm and it wove through the air, scraping against the metal framework. As she stared in terror and fascination, other cables, not as thick as the first one, snaked through the darkness.
“Oh, God.” The door was only ten steps away. “Help me.” Her voice was weak, barely more than a whisper. She staggered from the exhaustion that turned her limbs to jelly and her mind to wet cotton. It felt as if gravity had multiplied, pulling her down until it took every last ounce of her strength to lift her foot to the next step.
The smaller, faster cables coiled around her wrists and pulled her backward and up.
“No.” She wanted to sleep, to give in and rest. But her will to live forced her to fight the cables, to keep her balance and get out. In desperation she climbed one more step before more cables caught her around the waist and she was plucked from the stairs. As she kicked at the air, her shoes fell and clattered on the steps.
“Help me!” she screamed. “Please! Someone!”
More cables dropped down and wrapped around her arms, pulling her up to the ceiling.
Sharon knew she was going to die. Her life wasn’t supposed to end like this. A heart attack or a stroke or plain old age. But not murdered by some thing. “Help me!”
From above her came more slithering. When she glanced up, she could just make out three cables descending toward her.
“Please, someone help me!” She glanced around, hoping to see someone, even Leo, but she was alone. Her heart was about to explode. She couldn’t catch a breath.
Each of the new cables had jagged edges that danced in front of her, coming close to her face.
“Help me!” Sharon screamed, twisting in a useless attempt to get free. “Please!”
A round shape on the thickest braid of cable reflected the red light as it descended from the ceiling, shifting and turning as it came closer to Sharon’s face. At first it appeared to be a composite of gears, pieces of sheet metal and jagged bits of copper and silver. But when it smiled, Sharon realized she was staring at some kind of skull. The glass eyes, red points of malignant light, stared back. It made a hissing sound followed by a terrible creaking noise as if it was attempting to speak, but all that came out was the foul reek of motor oil.
“Please . . . please . . . please help me.” Her voice was weak from screaming. Tears streaked her face. For a moment she dangled helplessly with the impossible skull weaving in front of her. The next moment she was jerked up into the darkness. There was no light anywhere.
She begged God to help her, praying for mercy, for a quick and painless death, and then swearing she’d—
Cold metal sliced into her upper arm and she cried out.
Her breath came in short jagged bursts.
Warm blood dripped down to her hand, between her fingers.
Her eyes darted around but the darkness was complete; she might as well have been blind.
Another cable’s quick jab cut her and she gasped in pain and surprise. It was playing with her. She knew it but could do nothing to stop it, nor could she do anything to calm her jackhammering heart.
An icy cable slithered down around her neck as the ones holding her arms loosened; she was nearly suspended by the nooselike cable. As the cables around her arms continued to loosen and the one around her neck tightened, she felt herself sinking into oblivion, and she thanked God for answering her prayer.