Trying to feel my way down the narrow, unfamiliar steps in boots made me wish for my jogging shoes. I didn't dare lower the rifle to shine my light on the steps, because that would have taken the barrel across Lisandro and Edward's bodies. You did not cross a loaded weapon over your team, especially not on narrow steps where tripping was a real possibility. Normally, with killer zombies on the loose, I'd have had my finger on the trigger ready to fire, but I'd weighed that extra second before I could fire against possibly shooting my friends and decided the danger of tripping on the stairs was higher than being eaten by a zombie, at least on the stairs.
The swing of my light showed glimpses of railing just ahead. Once I was surrounded by open railing I'd reassess the dangers; until then I'd keep my finger off the trigger.
The smell of decomposing flesh got stronger with every step down. I just hoped that there'd come a point where my nose would get used to it and it would just cancel itself out. I'd smelled rotting bodies before, but never this many, or maybe just nothing this big. It was a lot of meat going bad. It didn't have to be bodies. Maybe they had a meat locker that had lost power and we were smelling rotting cow and pig and ... Part of me really hoped it was something like that; the other part of me hoped it was something horrible that would give us a clue to find the rogue master. If he was down here in the basement, even Lisandro with his superior rat nose would never smell such innocent things as a bloodsucker over the overpowering stench of rotting meat. I didn't think the rogue vamp was down here - most vampires are picky about odors - but it certainly would keep casual visitors away.
Hatfield cleared her throat sharply behind me. I prayed silently that she wouldn't throw up on me. Not just for the obvious reason, but because if she did I would so throw up, too. It could be a chain reaction sometimes, not often, but once one person lost it, sometimes it was harder for the rest of us to hold on, or hold in. My stomach rolled at the smell and the thought and Hatfield's nervous cough. I realized we hadn't eaten breakfast, and I was glad.
I heard Lisandro make a sharp hissing sound between his teeth, as if he had held in a louder noise. I wanted to ask what had startled him, but I was inches away from the banisters and seeing for myself. If it had been something dangerous, Edward would have said something. I trusted him to warn me, but I'd seen Lisandro tortured and he hadn't made a sound that sharp.
Edward and his rifle pointed to the left of the stairs, Lisandro took right, and as I stepped out of the sheltered area and into the open space of the next section of stairs I took left and knew that Nicky would know to take right. I had to trust that Hatfield and Seamus knew how to quarter a room. They both had the training, but until I see someone use that training I reserve judgment.
My flashlight slid over the darkness and I saw the first pile of bodies. They were stacked on top of each other and, except that these bodies were plump and rotting instead of thin and starving, it reminded me of the photos from the Nazi concentration camps. There they just stacked the bodies up because there were too many of them to stay ahead of even mass graves. There weren't as many bodies here as those thousands, but there were dozens. In the dark, coming upon them suddenly, it seemed like more.
Nicky made no sound of surprise as he hunched down the stairs behind me. Hatfield asked, 'Are they zombies?'
'How can you be sure?' she asked.
'They're bloating with gases. Zombies rot, but they don't make gas. Theory is, either moving around dissipates the gas, or something about being a zombie means they rot differently from regular dead bodies. No one's really sure, but zombies go thin and wear down; they don't swell and expand like real corpses.' I sounded so ordinary, like I was lecturing. Sometimes in the midst of horror you hold on to the ordinary, so I explained our job to Hatfield and it helped me stay calm.
'If they're not zombies, why are we still pointing guns at everything?' she asked.
'Because something put the bodies down here,' Edward said.
'Oh,' she said, and a glance back showed me her gun pointing out past Nicky's body. It was enough for me to know that she was taking the opposite side of the stairs behind Nicky. We split the room the same way, with me following Edward, and Nicky peeling off with Lisandro. I hadn't known for sure that he would follow protocol if it meant being farther away from me, but I guess he trusted Edward, or he trusted that he and Lisandro would be fast enough to protect me from one side of the small basement to another.
The six of us split the room like we'd been trained to, and we had our guns on as much of the space as possible without risking shooting one another. 'Zombies don't hoard food,' I said, softly.
'Ghouls will,' Edward said.
'I thought we decided this couldn't be ghouls,' Hatfield said from her part of the room.
'We did, but that was before we saw the bodies.'
'Is it food storage, or are they hiding the bodies?' Seamus asked.
'I don't know,' I said.
'I thought zombies would just eat everything, and ghouls would eat even the bones,' Hatfield said.
'The bodies are almost untouched,' she said.
'Then if this wasn't zombies, or ghouls, what, or who, put the bodies down here?'
'Don't know,' I said.
'Forrester?' she asked.
'I don't know either,' he said.
'Aren't the two of you supposed to know?' she said.
'I thought so,' I said.
'If this is food storage, then we could use it as bait,' Edward said.
'You mean like staking out a kill for a maneater?' I asked.
'And what if it's just a body dump?' Nicky asked.
'Then they may want to put more bodies down here,' I said.
'So either way we stake out the place and see who, or what, comes back,' Edward said.
'Not if they see the police here,' Lisandro said.
'He has a point,' I said.
I heard the distant wail of sirens.
'Too late,' Nicky said.
'Maybe,' I said, 'or maybe whatever is doing this won't know, because it's daylight. We clear everything out before nightfall and it still might work.'
Then power ran through my head and over my skin. I had a second to feel it wake, and then yelled, 'Vampire!'
'Where?' Hatfield called.
'Here,' said a voice that wasn't any of us.