He said, “At least let me go first. Oh, and get a kitchen knife.” He raised a hand in peace at her protest. “Just in case, Anna. Maybe it’s not your uncle, or maybe he’s in trouble. Either way, we’re stupid to not have a weapon.”

Anna crossed to the counter, still tiptoeing, and retrieved the largest knife she could find. “Don’t you dare hurt my uncle. Maybe I should go first.”

“Let’s go together. Side by side.”

It didn’t help that the door creaked open. They both jumped at the sound; indeed, the creaking seemed to reawaken the groans from below, too. Anna always hated the fact that the chain-pull for the light was at the bottom of the stairs. She hated it even more now.

Who the hell puts the light pull at the bottom of the stairs? she thought for the hundredth time.

And so they descended the shadowy stairs, afraid, touching shoulders, and very nearly holding hands. Only the ambient light from the kitchen above lit their way.

Halfway down the stairs, the shadows of two figures stopped the teenagers dead in their tracks. Now, in the faint light, Anna could see, amazingly, astonishingly, that the figures were her uncle and his friend.

“Oh, my God!” she said and, to Jared’s surprise, hurried down the steps to the dangling light chain-pull below.

Anna hadn’t taken the time to think of what she might find down here, but she sure as hell wasn’t expecting the horror waiting for her.

“Holy shit!” said Jared behind her when the light splashed across the square-shaped room made of brick and sporting various support beams.

And secured to two such beams was, to her utter shock, her Uncle Joe and his friend Mike. Both recoiled from the light, trying to shield their eyes, and neither showed any signs of recognizing her. Mostly, they looked horribly ill with skin that was a deathly gray, and vomit and foam dripping from their mouths and onto their clothing. Although shielding their eyes from the single bulbs, Anna noticed two things about their eyes: they were blood red...and angry.

So angry.

Additionally, both were handcuffed, which meant her dad had something to do with it. She was beginning to see why her didn’t want her coming back alone.

Yeah, she got it now.

“Uncle Joe!” Despite her fear, Anna took a step toward him. He cocked his head. Listened for a second, then bared his teeth and lunged. Anna screamed and jumped back. If Jared hadn’t held her up, she would have fallen.

The chained men regarded the young pair and yanked on their handcuffs harder, the metal cutting into their wrists. Their eyes...so red, so filled with hate.

Not hate, she thought. They’re sick. Just sick...

“Anna,” said Jared behind her, his voice barely above a whisper, “we’ve got to get out of here.”

“No!” she said loudly, tearing free of his grasp. “We’ve got to do something. Look at them!”

“Oh, I am,” said Jared softly. He didn’t know Anna’s uncle or this other guy, and right now he didn’t care if Lady Gaga was chained only a few feet away. “Anna, you can’t touch them. Let’s get out of here. Now.”

“We have to help them! Look, the light is hurting their eyes.”

Jared grabbed her hand, tightly. “There’s something wrong with them, Anna. Something bad...and if they weren’t chained up...Jesus, look at how they’re looking at us. They want to friggin’ kill us.”

“I’m not leaving.”

“Yes, you are. I’ll turn out the light for them, but we’re getting the hell out of here and away from them.” He took her hand and pulled her back toward the stairs. She resisted, but not by much. Just then, one of the men—her uncle maybe, he didn’t know—literally lunged at them like a caged animal.

Jared didn’t like the thought of switching off the light, but he figured it was best to leave things the way they had found them—with the lights off.

He pushed Anna ahead of him, up the stairs, then reached back. As he did so, he looked for a final time at the two men chained to the support beams. They stared at him with reddish eyes, swaying slightly...and making low, growling noises insides their throats.

No, not men, he thought, yanking off the light. Not any more.

The teens bolted up the stairs.

Chapter Sixteen

For the most part, I trusted my instincts. Every good cop does. And, yes, despite Carla’s occasional teasing, park rangers are cops, too. Most officers feel their way through any situation, trusting their training and equipment. But mostly, they trusted their instincts.

I knew it was the right decision to send Anna to Brice’s house. And, as difficult as it was, I was at peace with my decision to chain up my brother and his friend. They were out of their minds, delusional...and violent. I would deal with—and accept—the consequences of my actions…later.

You cuffed your brother in the basement, in the dark.

I had to, I told myself now as I pulled into the driveway of my ex-wife’s fairly secluded Los Feliz home. The light was hurting their eyes...

Yes, I trusted my instincts—except for now. I turned and looked at the woman next to me. A cop, yes, but she was also a woman I was interested in. Perhaps more than interested. Why had I allowed her to come?

The answer, of course, was obvious: I hadn’t so much allowed her to come as she had insisted. She was a force of nature in her own right and so I had relented.

Bad idea, I thought.

Then again, what was a good idea? The police would shoot first and ask questions later. For now, I needed to find medical help for him. First and foremost. Truth was, I could use the help.

I cut the engine. I’d always enjoyed the peace and quiet here. The sycamores, maples and eucalyptus, along with well-groomed gardens, provided a priceless privacy that I just couldn’t get when Anna and I slept at the zoo or observatory.

Admittedly, the house now appeared ominous. It seemed taller, too, and I could almost sense the dark secret lurking inside.

“Maybe I should handle this on my own, Carla—”

“For God’s sake, Carter, can it.” She took my hand in hers. It was warm and gave me back a little strength.

She noticed the bright red mark on my knuckles, a wound that had only seemed to be getting worse. “What’s wrong with your hand?” she asked. She leaned and looked at it a little more closely. She wrinkled her nose. “It’s infected.”

“It’s something,” I said, and gently pulled my hand away.

I didn’t have time to worry about my hand. Maybe Carla could make some sense of all this where I couldn’t. Although we both worked in the same field, my line of work—working within the park system—was a little more sheltered. I think a part of me wanted someone to tell me that I wasn’t crazy.

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