Ischke headed off in a different direction, toward the back of the manor.
Fiona hurried to follow. She clutched the Taser in her pocket. If she could get the bitch alone, make her talk…
Flying down the steps, Fiona slowed near the bottom, resuming a more subdued pace. Ischke was headed down a central hall that seemed to run straight through the heart of the manor house.
Fiona followed from a distance, head lowered, feather duster folded in her arms like a nun with a Bible. She took tiny steps, a nondescript mouse of a servant. Ischke descended a set of five stairs, passing a pair of sentries, and followed along another hallway to the left.
Fiona approached the pair of guards. She increased her pace, appearing like a servant late to some obscure duty. Still, she stayed deeply bowed, half-buried in her oversize maid outfit.
She reached the short stairs.
The guards ignored her, plainly on their best behavior after the mistress of the house had just passed them. Fiona skipped down the five steps. Once in the lower hall, Fiona found it empty.
Ischke was gone.
A mix of relief and terror suffused through her in equal parts.
Should I return to the room? Hope for the best?
She remembered Ischke's cold laughter—then the woman's voice barked sharply, close, coming from a double set of decorative iron-and-glass doors to the right.
Something had pissed Ischke off.
Fiona hurried forward. She listened at the door.
"The meat must be bloody! Fresh!" Ischke hollered. "Or I'll put you in there with her."
Mumbled apologies. Footsteps ran away.
Fiona leaned closer, her ear to the glass.
The door shoved open, striking her in the side of the head. Ischke stormed through, running straight into Fiona.
Ischke swore, elbowing her aside.
Fiona reacted instinctively, relying on old skills. She untangled herself and bunched into a ball, dropping to a knee, cowering—it didn't take much acting.
"Watch where you're going!" Ischke fumed.
"Ja, maitresse,"she fawned, bowing deeper.
"Get out of my way!"
Fiona panicked. Where was she supposed to go? Finding Fiona at the door, Ischke would wonder what she had been doing crouched there. The woman's body still held the door open. Fiona scraped her way, bowing through the open doorway, out of Ischke's way.
Fiona's hand went to her hidden Taser, but it took her a moment to drop what she had just stolen from Ischke's sweater pocket. She had not meant to steal it, just reflexes. Stupid. Now the delay cost her everything. Before she could free her Taser, Ischke swore and strode away. The heavy iron-and-glass door swung shut with a clang between them.
Fiona cringed, cursing herself. What now? She would have to wait a few moments before leaving. Suspicions would be too aroused if she were spotted on Ischke's trail again. Besides, she knew where Ischke was headed. Back to the lift. Unfortunately, Fiona didn't know the house well enough to take an alternate route to the main hall, to attempt an ambush.
Tears threatened, a mix of fear and frustration.
She had bollixed the whole deal.
Despairing, she finally took note of the chamber ahead. It was brightly lit, with natural sunlight streaming through a geodesic glass roof. It was some type of inner circular courtyard. Giant palms rose from the central floor and crowned toward the glass roof. All around, massive colonnades supported the high roof and set off deep cloisters around the room. Three lofty halls, arched and as high as the central courtyard, branched off like chapels off a church's nave, forming a cross.
But this hall was no place of worship.
The smell struck her first. Musky, fetid, the reek of a charnel house. Cries and ululating moans echoed across the cavernous space. Curiosity drew her a step forward. Three stairs led down to the main floor, empty of staff. The man whom she had heard run off after being scolded by Ischke was nowhere in sight.
From her post, she searched the room.
Fitted into each of the sunken cloisters around the edges of the giant courtyard were massive cages, sealed in front by iron-and-glass grates, like the entry door. Behind the bars, she spotted hulking shapes, some curled in slumber, others pacing, one hunkered over a knob of leg bone, gnawing. The hyena creatures.
But that wasn't all.
In other cages, she spotted additional monstrosities. A gorilla sat sullen near the front of one cage, staring straight at Fiona with an unnerving intelligence. Worse yet, some mutation had stripped the beast of its fur. Wrinkled elephantine skin hung from its body.
In another, a lion paced back and forth. It was furred, but it grew out bleached and patchy and was presently fouled with feces and gore. It panted, eyes red-rimmed. Fangs protruded, saber-toothed and sickled.
All around were twisted forms: a striped antelope with corkscrewing horns, a pair of skeletally tall jackals, an albino warthog plated like an armadillo. Gruesome and sad at the same time. The jackals caged together wailed and yipped, moving woodenly, crippled.
Still, pity did little to hold back the terror of seeing the giant hyenas. Her eyes fixed on the one gnawing a thigh bone of some massive animal. Water buffalo or wildebeest. A bit of meat and black fur still waited to be worried from the bone. Fiona could not help imagining that it could have been her. If Gray hadn't rescued her…
Tensing its massive jaws, the giant hyena cracked the leg bone, snapping it like a gunshot.
Fiona jumped, awakened again.
She retreated to the door. She had waited long enough. With her mission a failure, she would sneak back to her hiding place with her tail tucked between her legs.
She grabbed the door and yanked on it.
Gray stared at the row of heavy steel levers, heart pounding in his throat. It had taken him too long to find the master circuit switches for the electrical board. He could sense the power flowing through the giant cabling in the room, an electromagnetic force felt at the base of the neck.
He had already wasted too much time.
After discovering one of the drums of Xerum 525 was missing, one intended for the United States, urgency weighed heavily upon Gray. He had abandoned any attempt to reconnoiter the remainder of the subbasement. Right now, it was more important to get a warning off to Washington.
Marcia had reported seeing an emergency shortwave radio in the security block when she had been taken from her cell. She knew whom to call, a partner of hers, Dr. Paula Kane, who could pass on the warning. Still, they both knew that to go for the radio was probably a suicide mission. But what choice did they have?
At least Fiona was safely ensconced away.
"What are you waiting for?" Marcia asked. She had cut free her sling and changed into a laboratory smock from one of the storage lockers. In the dark, she might pass for one of the lab's researchers.