A Kathryn Blake fragment . . .
She found herself on a broad landing, exposed and conspicuous. She had reached the central well of the house, and it was clear that the house had suffered. She had come out on the first floor, and two more rose above her. Where a chandelier might once have hung an ugly clump of machinery huddled, and fluorescent tubes were bolted across the landings. Below her a tiled floor, cracked and stained beyond ever being truly clean again, stretched between dark panelled walls. To her left the panelling gave way to stone, and an arched doorway that must once have been the house’s grandest, most formal entrance. Above her was an inviting silence. She headed down, very aware of the sound of distant voices and a pervasive electrical hum. Upstairs was no use to her.
She moved down smoothly, and the fob at her wrist flashed regularly on every third step. Was the spacing in time, she wondered or in space? She had time at least to settle that one. She retraced her steps, moving faster, and the flashes came as they had come before, on the second step, the fifth, and . . . she paused for ten long seconds . . . the eighth. The light was reasonable but not bright, and she could see no sign of the sensors. At least she knew there was a regular pattern. It gave her some hope of evading it, if it became necessary. Her face was a grim mask in the cold light of the fluorescents. She was disappointed in him. She always warned her private clients against regular grids. She had assumed that he would do the same.
She leant a moment on the railing of the landing, considering the path before her, and it was only because she did so that she heard the voices approaching below. She shrank back to the wall, for the sake of the fraction of extra cover afforded by the width of the stairs. They came closer, their footsteps ringing in the tile. She ghosted upwards, stepping high and cleanly, taking two of the shallow steps at a time, meaning only to withdraw as far as she must, to return as the voices faded away. On the fifth step, the flash at her wrist arrested her. There had been none at the second. Were there fewer sensors at the upper levels? The answer came to her intuitively. There was smooth plaster here, and strip lights cast unforgiving shadows. The sensors were in the skirting boards, easier to fit, easier to hide, easier to step clean over . . . She looked up at the untidy mass of hardware where a chandelier ought to have hung, noting that it did not hang, as the chandelier once had, from chains, but was bolted firmly into the ceiling. It would not shift in the breeze. It could not, if it was the hub of a regular, radial system of sensor beams.
Still aware of the voices below she ascended, carefully. She kept close to the wall, taking long strides and short ones so that she stepped cleanly over each third tread, watching her wrist for the tell-tale flash. She had broken no beam on the first landing. She supposed the system around the door itself was guardian enough. She chanced the second landing, crossing it in a show of boldness, and the fob on her wrist remained dark.
She took no such chance when she reached the gallery at the top of the house. It reached around three sides of the hallway, though no doorways opened from it. It seemed to exist only to give access to the windows; but at that point she felt that giving access to windows was an excellent purpose for existence. She had only Pavel’s word for it that they were in the heart of the forest. She might find that there was a village that she could raid for supplies before she ran. Even if what he had told her was true, she would at least know the terrain, and that alone was well worth the detour. Yet still she crouched on the top step, considering. There must be sensors across this landing, little used though it was, and it would take more than luck to evade them. That was not entirely what concerned her. She would rather see the terrain, and have Pavel know that she had done so, than have him suspect her of knowledge she did not have, but she had come up without tripping a beam, and she would not have him know that she had done that. She would have to return to the first landing, and come back less carefully. It ate into her unknown stock of time. At any moment they might discover her gone, and raise the alarm. At any moment a figure might emerge from one of those blank, uninformative doors, and the game would be up.
She was close to deciding that the view was worth the extra risk when a soft clatter from the ceiling distracted her. The lurking hardware was realigning itself. She discounted it as interesting but unhelpful, and rose smoothly to her feet, still gazing out across the hallway. Even so, she almost missed the faint flash of green from the opposite side of the gallery, low down between the balcony railings. She froze. It was surely impossible. She could not have missed another crouching figure, not even up here, where the light was dimmer. She used the old sentries’ trick, concentrating on the periphery of her vision, less detailed, but more sensitive to movement. The light came again, a yard or so from where she had first seen it. Four feet, she corrected, upbraiding herself for the sloppy estimate, and still close to the floor. The owner would have to be crawling, unless the fob was tucked into the top of a boot – and she should certainly have seen him, outlined against the windows, if it were. A third flash, and the fob, with its wearer, rounded a corner, coming into fuller light. She would have laughed at herself, if she had not been so aware of the soft noises from below, had it not become so suddenly vital to make no startling moves. The fob was worn at the neck, but not the neck of a crawling man. She glanced back down the staircase, mentally sketching in the lines of the beams she had avoided, and tossed Pavel’s fob down to the next landing. Then she resettled herself across the top step, and composed herself to be amenable to cats.
It was a heavy boned, scarred old mouser, approaching diffidently, tail erect, unsure of this alien presence. She feared for one moment that she was beneath his notice, that he would leap her ankles neatly and continue on his chosen course, forcing her to make an ungainly grab for a creature she could not be sure of holding. He hesitated, curiosity overcoming caution. She feigned indifference as he made his way along the length of her legs, the tip of his erect tail twitching. As he closed with her she offered a hand, gently, first to sniff and then to butt at. She felt the cool damp of his scent glands as he rubbed his cheeks against her fist, and withdrew her hand, gently, teasingly. He first stretched for it, then followed, and she forced herself to wait until he had trusted both front paws firmly to her thigh before she made her own move.
Seconds later she was on her feet, the discountenanced cat held firmly to her body, and she was heading for the nearest window.