Isabella Bonfontaine tapped her foot. Somewhere in the gloom above her, clinging to a rope, was the aristocratic, whiny, and unathletic Lord David Brackendell. Around her were the rock walls of the natural chimney, and slightly to her left was an opening that looked man-made. She’d already turned her head-lamp off and seen that there was a glow of yellowish light coming through the opening, but David had started yelling and complaining so she’d had to turn the light back on. She was seriously contemplating telling him that the floor was soft and just to let go.
“Izzy? Are you still there Izzy?” David’s voice echoed in the chimney and the words at the bottom blurred quickly into a seascape of sound.
“Yes!” Her voice was crisp and clear and the echoes died away almost as soon as they’d arisen because she was speaking straight up, giving the sound least chance to spill from the cave.
“I think I’m stuck, Izzy.”
“It’s a rope, David. You’re not stuck, you’re just scared.”
“I can’t move!”
“Well I think you should try and fix that,” she said. “There was a spider’s nest at the top of the chimney, you probably saw it as you came over the ledge. My experience with spiders tells me that they’re probably climbing the rope as well by now, seeing it as a welcome addition to their ecosystem. They can’t be too far above you.”
There was a few seconds silence, and the rope jerked a little as though someone had started climbing down again.
“Izzy?” Izzy, how much experience have you had with spiders? Like, just garden spiders, house spiders, that kind of thing?”
“Well, last year in Australia there were Black Widows,” said Isabella thinking back. There were no spiders at the top of the rope but she knew David was scared of them, and she had encountered a lot over the years. “Earlier this year there were the corpse spiders, I never did find out the proper name for them. That was Roumania I think, but I was over in Hungary as well in March, and that was where we found the giant spiders the size of a horse’s hoof. And I mean a carthorse here, not one of those piddling little ponies you ride around your estate.”
There was a sudden rushing noise and then a thump as David landed heavily on the rock. Isabella was pleased to see that he was still wearing his leather driving gloves; listening to him complain about rope burns for the next three days would quite possibly have driven her to stuffing his socks in his mouth and taping them there.
“I got unstuck,” he said, a little unsteadily. Even the in the head-lamp – a small LED torch attached to a velcroed strip of cotton wrapped around her head – she could see that he was sweating. Here underground, surrounded by rock and dripping water, it was too cool for that to be anything other than fear.
“That’s great,” she said. “This way.”
“How do you know where you’re going, Izzy? I thought this was all new to you too?” There it was in his voice again, a little whine, a hint of entitlement that she’d been hoping he’d grow out of before they got this far.
“There’s two ways out, David,” she said patiently. “This way, and back up the rope.”
“The rope with spiders on? Are we leaving it here?”
She turned back and stared at him in amazement. In the light of his torch he could clearly see that only three-quarters of her face seemed to work; a stroke some years earlier had paralysed the muscles from the corner of her mouth to the corner of her eye, so some of her expressions had become quite sinister as a result. “It’s tied at the top,” she said at last. “If you want to climb up, untie it, and then jump back down with it….” She turned away.
“Then you’ll break at least both your legs and I’ll leave you here,” she said.
He was silent as she led the way to the corner, and then turned her lamp off again. Stepping carefully around the rock, she found herself standing at the top of a rough-cut stone stairway. Large sloping terraces of stone gradually descended the side of a vast cave until they reached a rough scree that covered most of the floor of the cave. However, from this height it was clear that a path had been cleared through the scree, and – no, actually it looked more like a road, she thought. It was too wide for a man to need or be bothered with, and the turns were fairly gradual, more suited to something wheeled than things with feet. She followed it with her eyes, and realised that the yellowish glow was strongest where the road disappeared from sight. She looked up next, the ceiling was hung with stalactites, some in full growth and others flattened and truncated. It looked like at least some of the scree came from them breaking off and falling down. All around was the continual trickle of water, punctuated by the occasional splash of a drop falling into a shaded pool.
“Come on,” she said, her voice low but firm. “We need to get a little lower I think.”
“Where are we, Izzy?” David appeared round the corner and she had to push him back and make him turn his lamp off too. “I won’t be able to see where I’m going!”
“Follow me, and walk slowly,” she said. “I will be, there’s a lot of loose rock in here. But there is light in here, too, David, and that means other people. Who might be very interested to know what you’ve hired me to find.”
“Would you tell them, Izzy?” David felt for her hand and took it, and though she was tempted to shake him loose she decided that this might be easier than listening to him panic the whole way down. She started down the steps, each step nestling between the loose rocks until she was sure she was stable.
“Perhaps,” she said. “Some of them enjoy a little torture, others just want you dead before you can see anything really interesting. The clever ones do.”
“But you’re not dead, Izzy.” David sounded like he was trying to reassure himself, and Isabella wondered for a moment if she should tell him about her time in Roumania hunting for a woman who definitely had been dead several times and kept coming back for another try.
“There’s a first time for everything, David,” she said. Then she stopped; she’d come far enough forward now to see the source of the light. Round the corner of the rock, far down on the cave floor, she could see the entrance to a tunnel leading downwards whose walls were lined with electric lights and whose floor was set with rails. The tunnel turned shortly after it started so she couldn’t see any further in, but it was now clear that this wasn’t a casual operation.
“Let’s go back,” she said. “Turn round, David.”
“But there might be spiders!”
“And there might be guns here if we go further without a plan. Now turn round!”