“Holy shit, Mike! How is that-”
“Possible? I don’t know. I mean, I know how it’s possible, but exactly how they managed it, I don’t know.” They were both talking quickly, waking in counter circles of one another. If someone had seen them at that moment they might have assumed the two were related. “My guess is they either have a hell of a lot more blood that I thought, or–” he fixed Patrick with his signature intense gaze “–they have some kind of pump system rigged up. Something that’s transporting the blood collected on the ground back up to the ceiling. I don’t know how I missed it. I mean, we all assumed that the bleeding had taken place in the room, and that it had just been… spread everywhere afterwards, but that was never really a viable possibility. The whole thing was just so… bizarre, so unreal, that we couldn’t get past that. Our minds tried to rationalise it with the closest thing we knew, which was the idea that the room was simply covered in blood. But that was never it, see? The room isn’t covered in blood, the room is transporting blood!”
“Oh wow. Oh, man. I think… I think I’m going to be sick.” Patrick suddenly looked drained, as though the revelation had sapped him of energy.
“What, are you joking? Aren’t you excited? You just had a breakthrough all on your own! Well, pretty much on your own, I mean I helped a little but-”
“No, it’s not that, I just- I’ve got to get some fresh air. I’ll be out on the fire escape.” And with that he quickly rushed out of the room.
The hallway was empty, but he didn’t stop to think about where Jeffery might have gone. Instead, he burst through the door to the fire escape, rushing outside and grabbing a hold of the bannister, leaning his upper body over the edge and taking deep breaths. He stayed like that, the wind tugging at his clothes, his hair, until he had calmed down enough that he no longer felt like puking. He heard the door opening behind him, and turned to see Mike.
“You okay?” he asked, frowning in concern as he closed back the door. “You didn’t look too good back there.”
“Yeah, no, I’m good now. I’ve just… you know, with the blood and all.”
“Right.” Mike nodded, and then he frowned to himself, and Patrick saw his face change and knew he remembered. “Right,” he said, with more conviction this time. “Do you… I don’t know, what to talk about it?” Patrick smiled weakly.
“No, but thanks for making an effort.”
“Oh, okay,” he said, looking relieved. “You were pretty good back there, actually.” Patrick scoffed.
“No- Patrick, I’m serious. You did good.” He managed a smile, and Patrick returned it.
“So, what now?”
“Well, I was thinking we check the room beneath, see if the blood’s leaking through. With that much of it, the only way it wouldn’t be is if there’s some kind of collector for it, to feed it into the pump. That way we could be sure. If it’s leaking through then that’ll support the second theory.”
“That there’s more… you know, than we thought.”
“But won’t it be dangerous to go to another floor by ourselves? And how will we know which room is the one directly beneath this one?”
“Come on Patrick, think. Look where we are.”
“Oh, right.” He smiled apologetically, and Mike rolled his eyes.
“Sometimes I wonder about you, boy.”
“Should we tell the others?”
Mike shrugged. “We’ll only be a second.”
They walked down the grated staircase to the floor beneath, using Mike’s pistol (because it had a silencer) to shoot the lock off the door. Then they pushed it open, guns at the ready. They scanned the area, and then made their way over to the room directly to their left.
“Dust’s intact,” Mike noted. “We should be alone in here.” Even so neither of them made any move to holster their weapons. They did a quick scan of the apartment to make sure they were alone, ending their search at the room matching the bloody one above. Mike grabbed the door handle in one hand, his other still holding the gun, and then, with a look to Patrick, pressed down and pushed the door open. His hand groped the wall inside for the light switch, his feet making no move to enter. When his fingers located the switch he flicked it upwards, and a familiar amber light filled the room.
“It’s dry,” the detective remarked.
“Yeah, I’m not blind.”
Mike gave him a look, stepping into the room. He studied the ceiling for a moment, and then nodded. “Completely dry.”
“Well, guess we have our answer.”
“It’s weird, isn’t it?” Patrick remarked, still staring at the white ceiling.
“Looking up from down here, there’s no indication of the, ah… things going on up above.” Mike followed his gaze, as though there was something he had missed.
“Yeah. Yeah, I guess it is weird.” They stared at the ceiling for a moment, silent, thoughtful. “Come on,” Mike said eventually. “We’ve got a lot to do.”
Back up above they stood in the living room and sent two short bursts over the radio, the code to rejoin. They got only one reply.
“Why didn’t the others respond?” Mike shrugged.
“Could be they just didn’t bother. It’s not required, you know. Just common courtesy.” Patrick studied his face, just as Mike himself had taught him, and he could tell he was trying to reassure him.
A short while later the door opened and both heads turned to see Penny returning.
“This had better be important,” she grumbled. “I was only a few rooms away from checking them all on my path.”
“It’s important. Have you seen the other two?”
Penny shook her head. “Do you want me to go look for them?” Before Mike could respond the door opened a second time, and Jeffery came in. His eyes found Mike’s, and he shook his head, his mouth set tight.
“What?” Penny asked, looking from one to the other.
“I was looking for Ross. Didn’t find him. ‘Course, I wasn’t finished checking all the rooms; he could still be out there.”
“Well, assuming his radio’s intact, I guess we’ll find out soon enough. I’m not going to wait though.”
“What is it?”
“We figured it out. The blood isn’t just covering all the walls and ceiling; it’s actually flowing from the ceiling, down the walls, collecting on the ground, and then being pumped back up. It’s a cycle.”
“Wait, actually? What the hell?”
“That’s just… sick. Why?”
Mike shrugged. “I don’t know. Whoever did this is as intelligent as they are twisted. What matters is catching them.”
“Well, as… interesting as that discovery is, how does it help us in finding them?”
“Because if it’s coming from the ceiling now, that’s where it came from originally.”
“How do you know? Isn’t it possible they did the bleedings on the floor in there, and then just let it pool before starting up the pump?”
“No. At least, not to my knowledge. It would have to be an extremely strong pump to resist gravity like that. Something that powerful would be making a lot of noise; noise we would have heard. No, I think it started above, and the force of the blood falling from the ceiling would create a suction that would continue to pull blood from the ground back up to the beginning. Not by itself, of course; there’s almost certainly an actual pump of some kind, but the force of suction would need to be there in the beginning.” He paused. “Or so I’m hypothesising. My field of expertise isn’t physics.”
“It sounds reasonable to me. But there’s just one problem.”
“There’s no floor above this one. This is the top floor, remember?”
“Yes, I see how that could be a problem. If, of course, that were true.”
“What are you saying?”
“While I was out on the fire escape I happened to take a look at the top of the building.”
“And there’s a lot of room up there. Enough, say, for a hidden floor.”
“A hidden floor? Why the hell would an apartment building have a hidden floor?”
“Maybe because it was added recently.”
“Alright, you’re losing us.”
“The material was different! I mean, it was the same material, or at least close to it, but the ageing was all wrong. You could tell from the colouring, the texture. It was nowhere near as old as the rest of the building. Whoever it was did a damn good job though. It took me a while to spot it.”
“Phil, that’s ridiculous! Who the hell would add another floor to a building?”
“I don’t know,” he said, and only Patrick, who knew him the best, recognized the lie as he said it, “but whoever it was, they’re working very hard to keep all this a secret.”
“Shit,” Penny said, running her hands through her hair. “What the hell have we walked into?”
“Can you even imagine the kind of manpower it would take to do something like that? To build a whole other floor onto a building? The kind of resources? That’s… wow. Just wow.” Jeffery shook his head. “There aren’t any gangs who could pull this off, or at least none that I’ve heard of. So that leaves…”
“The Cleansers.” All eyes turned to Patrick, and he looked up. “Well, it’s true, isn’t it? They’re the only ones with the resources, the manpower, the capability.”
“The Cleansers,” Jeffery whispered. “Shit.”
“What I’m still stuck on,” Penny said, facing the group, “is motive. Right now I don’t care who the hell did it, what I’m concerned with is motive. As if dousing a room in blood and setting up a shower wasn’t weird enough, who the hell would bother building a new floor onto a building?”
“This is more like a cult thing than anything else. But there’s no cults that I know of who could pull this off.” Mike, who hadn’t spoken for some time, looked up sharply when Jeffery spoke, seeming to study him intently. The soldier looked like he was about to continue with his train of thought, but before he could Mike interjected.
“Look, we can speculate about this as much as we want, but it’s not going to do us much good. Especially not when the answer is right above our heads.”
“So… what, you’re suggesting we get up there?”
“But of course,” he replied, looking sincerely surprised. “What did you think we were going to do? If our missing colleagues are anywhere, they’re there. Not to mention the person -or persons, as its starting to look like- who are responsible for this whole fiasco.”
“Alright, fair point. But how do we do it? I mean, if it really was added on afterwards then the building doesn’t actually connect to it anywhere. Not by the fire escape, not by the stairwell, and certainly not by the elevator shaft.”
“True,” Mike said, “but whoever made it needed to access it too, and I doubt they scaled the walls to do it.”
“You think they made a way to get to it.”
“Either that or a rooftop entrance. Buildings like this often had a set of stairs that would lead up to a rooftop garden or something. If we can find one of those…”
“Then we can get to the hidden floor,” Patrick finished, understanding. Mike nodded.
“So, what? We split up into twos, search the whole floor?”
“That’s what I had in mind, yes. Patrick and I, and you two. Keep an eye on the ceiling at all times; if it is a secret entrance it could be anywhere, and it’s probably very well disguised. Anything at all, anything that looks like it could be something, check it out. Got it?”
“Got it, but shouldn’t the pairs be switched? A detective and a soldier each seems like it would make more sense.”
“Actually I’m only a detective apprentice-” Patrick started, but Mike was already nodding.
“Okay, how about I go with Patrick, and Paul goes with Jeffery.” Everyone agreed, and after a moment to go over the plan again, they headed out, Mike and Jeffery heading off to the right and Penny and Patrick going straight, each soldier going in the direction they had already started searching.
“Remember to keep an eye out for Ross,” Mike said just before they separated. “If anything he’d most likely be in our direction, but you never know.” And Patrick decided he was right: you never knew.
Penny took the lead, her gun at the ready. Patrick walked behind her, inspecting the ceiling as per instructions. They re-checked every room Penny had been in, to her evident displeasure.
“Waste of my time,” she mumbled. Watching her move, her feet treading carefully across the carpet with scarcely a sound, the muscles in her shoulders taut and tense, her movements like that of the predator cats they sometimes saw prowling the city at night, he felt a nervous kind of relief that he wasn’t on the other side of her gun.
“Kinda funny, isn’t it?” he said, more out of a need to break what he perceived as an awkward silence than anything else.
“What?” she murmured, in a voice that indicated she was only half listening, her focus almost entirely on the task at hand.
“Penny and Patrick. Two P names.”
“You mean three.”
“Three P names. Penny, Patrick, and Phil.”
“Oh- yeah, of course,” he stammered, his face flushing red at the near slip-up. Thankfully she was still facing the other way, and if she noted the panic in his voice she didn’t let on. “I just meant the two of us, because we’re partnered.”
“Yeah,” she said absently. “There’s also Penny and Jeffery. Both have double letters, see?”
“Huh, you’re right. Cool.”
“Sure.” The mistake all but killed Patrick’s desire for small talk, and the rest of their search was carried out in almost complete silence. They scoured each room, checking the ceiling throughout, looking in cupboards, ducking their heads out of windows to check for ladders. The process was painstakingly slow, but eventually they made it past the point Penny had gotten up to herself and began searching new rooms.
“Looks like about six to go down this stretch,” Penny said as they neared the end of one of the corridors branching off the main one.
“Yep.” His fear of being attacked long forgotten whilst behind Penny, Patrick had begun to lose interest. By the time they’d finished checking all the rooms and started heading back his short attention span had kicked in full-drive. His mind began to wander, admiring the surprisingly appealing splatter-patterns the mould on the walls had achieved. It had a certain charm, he mused. Very… abstract. He took a mental photograph, resolving to try and replicate it later on with his paints as soon as they got back to the base.
“Hey.” Patrick turned, momentarily disoriented as he was called away from his daydreams. He saw Penny staring upwards, her gun raised and pointing in the same direction. After a moment Patrick followed her gaze, and saw what had caught her attention. “Think it’s worth checking out?” Even though they were alone, it took Patrick a moment to realise she was talking to him.
“What? Oh. Uh, maybe?”
She gave him a sideways glance. “Aren’t you supposed to be the inquisitive one?”
“Actually, I never wanted to be a detective.”
“Well, I feel like I just opened a can of worms. Maybe we should reschedule the psych talk until after this is all over. In the interest of achieving that…” she nudged the gun, gesturing towards the matter at hand. Patrick looked uncomfortable, but he shrugged.
“Yeah, why not. Just so long as you don’t think for a second that I’ll be the one to go in.”
Penny rolled her eyes. “Coward.”
“Hey, my questionable capabilities regarding immersion in uncomfortable situations has nothing to do with this. You’re the smallest.” As the words left his mouth Patrick realised they were potentially offensive, raising his chances of bleeding out on the ugly carpet beneath his feet to a solid eighty percent or so.
“You talk like you’ve been spending too much time with your mentor.”
Patrick, who had been preparing to duck into the nearest room, was a moment in registering what she had said and another moment in responding. “That’s exactly what I said! Oh, uh, sorry about the… short comment.”
Penny shrugged. “Why? It’s not like I find it offensive. Why would I? So I’m small. It’s not like it’s a bad thing, or something I should feel guilty or bad about, or even something I have any control over. Even if it was a bad thing it’s not like I’m to blame, you know?”
“Yeah, that actually makes sense. Good for you. Although, to be fair, in this situation it looks like being small is a bad thing.”
“It’s not like you can’t fit too, you know. Hey, we could both go.”
“And have someone come by and close us in? No thank you. I’m good standing guard.”
“Alright, alright. I suppose it’s only fair, after all. I did point it out. Which begs the question,” she said, turning to Patrick, “what kind of detective are you?”
“The in-training kind. Do you want a boost?”
They removed the four screws keeping the vent grill in place using Penny’s Swiss Army knife, or rather made their best attempt at it. The years had taken their toll on everything in the building, and the metal was no exception, caked with rust and practically melded to the grill in some places. In the end they had to use the butt of Penny’s assault rifle to smash in the last two screws, which refused to relent to the screwdriver. Patrick watched her with wide eyes as she attacked the grate, raising the weapon (safety on and ammunition removed, of course) high and repeatedly bringing it down as close to the spot as she could. The first screw crumbled and the grate swung to the side, only held up by the last screw. She readjusted her aim and after a few more hits this one also gave in, and the grill fell. Patrick caught it just before it hit the ground, averting the racket it would have caused. The Rebels shared a look of crisis-averted, and then Patrick rested it aside to lean against the wall. Penny retrieved her flashlight from its place on her belt, and shone it into the void. The beam did little to penetrate the darkness, but it did shine on the metal walls of the vent, dulled with the thick coating of dust that had built up over the years. Penny moved the light this way and that for a moment, and then she sighed, smacking her palm against her forehead.
“I just realised something.”
“Well, if they are using the vents to get to the top floor, it certainly hasn’t been through this entrance.”
“How do you mean?”
“Think about it. Do you think they would go through the process we just went through every time they had to get to the top floor or back?”
Patrick scratched the back of his head, squinting. “Jeez. So, what? Do we even bother still going in?”
“First of all there is no we going in, as you were so adamant on earlier. Second, yeah, I think so. After all it’s not like this is the only vent on this floor, much less the rest of the building. And I’m pretty sure they all interconnect, so it should still lead us to the top floor entrance.”
“Assuming there is one.”
“Exactly. And, really, there should be one, because I’m pretty sure all buildings have a ventilation duct on the roof. From what I’ve seen, at least. I mean, I’m not exactly an architect. But if there was one on the roof before the new floor got put in then it stands to reason the opening is still accessible.”
“I think you’re right. I mean, I’m not exactly a detective, but this sounds like as good a lead as we’ve found so far.”
“Right then. Glad we’ve agreed to sacrifice me.” Patrick opened his mouth to object and she raised a hand to silence him. “I’m only kidding. Now, I’ll take you up on that boost you mentioned earlier, if you don’t mind.”
He got down on one knee beneath the vent, and offered her his hand for support. She took it, and stepped up onto his outstretched leg, keeping her other foot planted on the ground as she steadied herself. His leg wobbled for a moment, then stabilized. Penny hesitated, and then propelled herself upwards, stepping off of the ground and grabbing a hold of the vent’s ledge as soon as it was within reach. Patrick made an effort to conceal it, but a groan of pain escaped his lips as all her weight was put on his thigh.
“Oh, don’t be a baby,” she grunted. “Now whatever you do, don’t let your leg give out.”
“No… shit…” he managed, his face turning red with exertion. “Just… hurry and pull yourself up.” Penny pulled upwards, and the pressure on Patrick’s leg alleviated. He got to his feet just as she pulled herself in, torso disappearing into the darkness followed shortly by her legs. Before long she’d crawled far enough in that from a distance he could hardly make out the soles of her shoes, the dull thumps and scrapes of her progress the only testament to her presence. He watched her go for a moment, shuddering as he contemplated being the one in such a claustrophobic scenario. Eventually even the sounds of her movement faded from notice, and Patrick found himself alone in the eerie hallway, imagining all the possible ways he could be ambushed.