The air smelled of old plaster, of mold and water on concrete. It smelled of age and neglect. Cilla balanced on her heels as she repositioned the stool and set it gingerly on the floor. Any sound at this point was loud, and the echoing emptiness amplified the slightest noise.
A rustle from the next room, a dry skitter of leaves, of tiny feet, made Cilla turn quickly. Fargo, her Labrador Retriever mix, shifted in his spot but didn’t stand. She felt a subtle tightening of his muscles beneath her hand.
“Shit, Cilla, what the hell?” the voice sounded next to her, several notes higher than his usual tenor.
“Smith, language,” she hissed, not taking her eyes from the barely visible shapes around her. No sign of what had caused that sound, none yet, but she kept her eyes trained on the darkened doorway. She glanced at the black dog in the dim light, barely visible except for the glittering of his eyes, then toward the shape of her human companion.
“Really?” Smith whispered back.
“It’s a convent,” she muttered, easing her shoulder muscles with a stretch and slowly lowering herself back to the folding stool she had packed for just such an occasion. She didn’t believe in sitting on anything that remained in places like this. Bad enough to have a chair collapse under her weight during an investigation, but the last straw was the huge squashed spider stuck to the backside of her jeans a week ago.
“Do you see any nuns?” Smith responded quickly, his voice still high and tense.
“Not at the moment, but have you ever seen one in full habit? It’ll put the fear of God in you.”
“That would put the fear of something in me,” he said, and she could hear him fumbling for one of his many tools of the trade.
“You taking some snaps?” she asked, her voice pitched even softer. She knew that he had cameras running in other rooms, ones for video and some for stills, set to timers and computer automated, but the one in his hand was his favorite.
“Umm,” he mumbled, and she glanced down into the darkness at their feet. Next to the still figure of the prone dog, Smith’s bag was open. One of the cameras, specially made to photograph in dim light with slow shutter speed and clever lenses, was in his hands.
“Can you get a good read? It’s darker in here now.” She hadn’t wanted to go into the place in the middle of the night, but it was part of the job.
“Give me a second.” He paused, his fingers caressing the technology with familiarity. “Give me a light.”
She shined a penlight onto his hands, watching his slender fingers dance across the buttons. The illuminated screen of the camera lit momentarily.
“Okay?” she asked, anxious to turn off the flashlight. Artificial light wasn’t good for this situation.
His eyes skated up to her face, the round lens of his glasses catching a slip of light. “This’ll be fine. What about you? You getting anything?”
“Not yet, or not quite.” He knew better than to press her. She wasn’t a dime store medium with a pack of cards and a crystal ball. She wouldn’t see this any clearer than he could. She just heard. And now she was hearing the beginning. It was a buzz just now, a stirring, a movement, but it was getting louder, clearer.
Fargo rose in a fluid motion, ears cocked, tail still. He shifted in his stance, facing the stairway where it rose to the second floor. A panting breath broke the silence as the dog grew more excited by an unseen disturbance.
Smith turned and pointed the camera in the same direction as the dog and waited a moment. “I think I see,” he whispered, his eyes still on the camera in front of his face. Fargo raised his head, nostrils flaring, and Cilla could see the strip of fur running from scruff to tail bristle. The dog let out a high whine.
“Shhh,” she responded softly in a long hush.
Smith was shifting, the click of the camera, the snip of another piece of gear being activated. He used all of it, relied on it, his talent in capturing the slightest shift of atmosphere. He had an instrument to measure the temperature change, another to assess the heat patterns in the room, and still another recording sounds that they could never hear without the added technology.
Cilla shivered, aware of the sudden chill. As predictable and stereotypic as it was, the change in atmospheric temperature was a real thing, heralding the arrival of something from the spectral realm.
“It’s moving, Cilla!” Smith’s voice was a harsh whisper, his mouth so close to her ear that she could feel the heat of his breath. He was sucking in air fast. “Do we need to get our ass in gear?”
“Language,” she muttered, and tentatively looked around the foyer and into the parlor, turning her head slowly to avoid drawing any attention to them as they crouched in the corner. She could feel the vibration, in the air, under her feet, on her skin. “I think we have a few minutes.” She held up a hand, “I think,” she emphasized.
The dog’s gaze had dropped and was unfocused as he looked into the distance, but his keen ears were targeted directly toward the open doorway leading to the hallway and the rest of the house. Just by watching Fargo’s movements, Cilla could see the progression of their target.
“You think,” Smith muttered, a sharp click telling her that he was ready to shoot again. “Okay, well, I think that we’d better get this show on the road.” The buzz click of the camera made an insistent clatter in her ear. “Getting some,” he said, almost to himself.
But Cilla wasn’t hearing his voice so much anymore. The windy sound had grown in volume, a hiss, a buzz, then a whisper. “Can’t find them, can’t find them, where did I put them, where are they?” Lisping mumbles, neither male or female, more shadow and less substance.
“Cilla, I really feel like I need to, um, relocate,” she could feel Smith easing back behind her, his camera still snapping. The dog was moving as well, edging in front of them, the click of his nails audible on the dusty marble tile floor.
“Hold it,” she gasped. The noise, the sounds, the hints, the truth. “I need to hear it.” She held her breath, her head starting to pound. “Okay, I have it.”
“Jesus, Cilla, Jesus,” Smith was chanting.
“Keep praying,” she advised over the rustle of words.
The shape began to form and deepen, becoming more defined, bigger, and the meager moon beam from the grimy window seemed to soak into the fabric of the thing. It moved, first to the right, then back to the left, graceful and menacing, all the while approaching. And the words, like the scratching of a million beetles, slid into her brain.
“Where are they, could they be, feeling oddly, need them, want them.”
She licked dry lips, trying to focus around the fear, her feet moving back, her hands reaching out to the sides in the darkness, feeling for the wall, the doorway, the exit. The stool caught the edge of her shoe and grated against the marble floor. The dog was backing with them, body ridged, completely silent.
“Cilla.” Smith’s voice was a whine in her ear, and one of her hands brushed his sleeve. She closed her fingers over the fabric and pulled him back, closer to her body, away from the other.
“Need them, need, want, coming,” and the voice went on.
“Okay, run!” Cilla’s voice echoed off the high ceiling, hitting the plaster walls and volleying back in a bounce of sound and rattle.