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The Cellar

 .                                                                 The Cellar

“Joseph?” Martha called from the top of the cellar stairs. “Are you down there?” Her voice, though projected down the stairway, still reverberated around the upper halls of the Dunsany Institution. Clutching the lantern, she extended her arm more fully into the darkness, pushing the glow of her light as far as she could. The stairs led down to her husband’s office, a few storage closets, and the laboratory with the holding-cells. Holding cells in a place of well-being— how ludicrous! There was also another door leading to deeper caverns—caverns she had only ever been told of but never been.

 Her arrival at the Dunsany Institution with Whiskey Jack and two children had been chaotic. The city in general had been in a state of chaos as the magnitude of the fire began to enter into everyone’s consciousness.

After the bakery had collapsed on Ezra Crumb, Randall Flax and Little Wally the remaining members of the group had carried on at her insistence. Her neighbour, Abigail Sharp remained with the group as far as the Savory Street crossroads where she parted ways to search for her husband Jasper who worked near the Academy of Industry. Any others who had joined them along the way found alternatives once it was discovered where she and Whiskey Jack intended to take the still unconscious Thomas and her baby Cecil.  

The Dunsany Institution had been unprepared to absorb the sudden influx. When she and Whiskey Jack arrived early  Saturday afternoon the militia was already there, bringing into custody a girl accused of murder. They were followed shortly thereafter  by the arrival of Father Moonwall and Brother Pizarro with a lorry full of almost thirty sick boys from the Church of the Builder. It was understandable Joseph would be busy making arrangements but now it was late into her second night of loneliness since coming to be with her husband.

Martha took her first tentative downward step. The wooden stairs creaked with each footfall, bringing her focus back to the present. Shadows flickered and danced at the margins of her illuminated bubble. There was a light coming from the laboratory at end of the lower hall. She was halfway into another step when she could have swore she heard something. She froze mid-step—listening. The darkness and the silence seemed inseparably entwined.

“Mrs. Foehammer?” The unexpected call from the top of the stairs made her jump. She stopped halfway to the bottom, twisting around to look back up. Framed in the doorway to the main lobby was Brother Kadmus, his own lantern momentarily blinding her. The brother, she recalled, had remained at the institution to help care for the sick children.

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“Joseph?” Martha called out. Her voice seemed muffled by the darkness. She glanced at Brother Kadmus who merely shrugged. She turned and began to approach the laboratory. The door was ajar. The room appeared to be empty but for Thomas. He was sleeping on a small cot. He looked much better than he had when they arrived—as though his injuries had healed.

“Poor Thomas,” Martha said aloud, as much to herself as to the brother of the church. “I can’t help but think that bringing him here to be locked up was a mistake. He doesn’t look hurt since Joseph tended him, just peaceful. They will arrest him as soon as he awakens, I imagine.”

“You did more than most would have done,” Brother Kadmus assured her. “You had no way to know he was wanted by the authorities.”

“Of all the rotten luck for us— well, for him at least,” said Martha. “To arrive at the same time the militia was here delivering another prisoner. That Captain Digby—” Martha huffed, and shook her head— the closest she ever really came to expressing anger. “A man of the law should be impartial but he seemed practically gleeful at the boy’s misfortune.”

“The boy’s crime may find more sympathy in the courts than you think,” said Brother Kadmus. “I would not  be so quick to assume he will hang.”

Martha put her hand on Kadmus’s arm, halting their progress. “I thought the Faulkner girl the militia brought here was in the cells as well?” Martha furrowed her brow.

“Perhaps the doctor moved her,” Brother Kadmus suggested. “He may have felt she was no longer a danger.”

Martha gasped as a surge in adrenaline made her spin toward the door even before she realized she’d seen movement in her periphery.

“What is it?” Brother Kadmus hissed, sounding alarmed as he looked about.

“I don’t know,” Martha whispered. “I thought I saw something moving out in the hall, a shadow.” They both focussed on the door, listening, straining to hear anything they could.

“Hello?” Martha called out. She felt her heart pounding in her chest. It was so strong it made her wonder for the first time in her life if she might have reached an age where she could have a heart attack. Her mouth had gone pasty dry. “Joseph, if this is some sort of joke neither Brother Kadmus nor I are laughing.” The lantern rattled as her hand began to shake. There was something dark in the hall, moving towards them.

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