No matter how they tried, the floor to ceiling shelving unit was too big and heavy to lift from its face-down landing place.
“Unless you’ve got The Hulk out there,” the voice under the shelves said, “there’s not gonna be enough room for me to get out. Probably drop the damn thing when I’m halfway through and slice me down the middle.”
“I can’t hold it,” Sophia said, her eyes screwed up in strain.
“We’re putting it down,” Josh said. “You good in there?”
“Go for it.”
“Easy — watch your fingers —”
The unit banged on the floor.
“Everyone okay?” Josh asked.
They nodded, massaging their hands.
“It’s too big,” Sophia whispered.
“This thing is solid wood,” Ajay said. “Ten feet square, you think? There’s no way it’s coming up with us.”
“No, no, no!” the voice from under the shelves shouted. “You have to do something.”
“What’s your name, fella?” Josh asked.
“Okay, listen to me, Kieron: we’re gonna figure this out. We just … we need a minute to think.”
“Oh,” Sophia said, her eyes bright with an idea. “I saw something —” Before she finished speaking, she’d run out of the gallery.
Josh and Ajay glanced at each other.
“Getting seriously claustrophobic in here.”
For all the freaky pieces in the room, none of them looked solid enough to get through the heavy shelving. There was no way to fashion a lever and fulcrum from the birdcages for hats and shirts that buttoned over the face.
Josh rubbed the back of his neck. Ajay silently shook his head.
Sophia grunted around the corner.
“What the hell is she doing?” Ajay mumbled.
“What the fuck, you guys,” Kieron said. “Anyone out there?”
“Sorry, we, uh …”
Sophia re-entered, her face flush, clutching a solid silver ax.
Ajay backed away with his hands raised.
“It’s pretty heavy,” she said to Josh.
“Where was this?”
“That statue in there was holding it. I accidentally broke its hands off.”
Ajay grabbed the weapon from Sophia, to her indignation, and stepped onto the shelving unit.
“We found an ax,” he said, thumping the handle on the wood.
“Oh, God,” Kieron said, and knocked his location. “Please don’t chop my goddamn head off.”
Ajay swung, splintering the wood. After struggling to pull the blade out, he hacked again and again until the thick cabinet backing split open.
Ajay buried the ax head in the wood so it stood on its own and wiped his forehead with his sleeve, then pulled his shirt off and rubbed it down his face and chest. Before continuing his work, he tossed the shirt toward the wall and waggled his eyebrows at Sophia.
“Just help the guy or give someone else a turn,” she said.
“Guess we know what time of the month it is,” Ajay said to Josh, and swung the ax.
“Jesus Christ!” Kieron screamed. “Be fucking careful!” He banged on the wood again, dangerously close to the newest cut. The splinters bowed, but the hole wasn’t big enough to climb through.
Josh boarded the back of the shelving and took the ax from Ajay, the metal hot from his grip. After waving Ajay aside, he tapped the blade gently into the hole, widening the opening. After a few careful hacks and some guidance from the man inside, they broke through.
“Okay, that’s enough,” Kieron said, pulling his arms and head through the opening. “Fuck,” he breathed, brushing the splinters off his black clothes and close-cropped hair. “Just in case any of yous get the idea to go through one of those air vents up there,” he pointed to the small grills above the shelving units, near the ceiling. “These motherfuckers won’t hold your weight.”
Josh’s muscles screamed as he dropped the ax. Toweling off with his own shirt like Ajay wasn’t a bad idea, but couldn’t stomach the idea of showing his own undefined torso in front of his purposeful sculpt.
Sophia handed him and Kieron a bottle of water.
“Didn’t get you, did I?” Josh asked, and drank half the bottle to hide how out of breath he’d become.
He checked his arms and legs as he continued brushing himself off. “Nah.” He sat on the edge of the shelving unit and took a swig of water.
“Who are you?” Ajay asked. “Why haven’t we seen you till now?”
“Kieron.” He finished the water and chucked the empty against the wall. “I didn’t want you to find me, but fuck if I had a choice.”
“You been here long?” Sophia asked, keeping her eye momentarily on the litter.
“You mean in Blair’s Chamber of Horrors? Better part of a day, I guess.” He rubbed his face. “She fucking drugged me. I don’t know how long I was out. Who the hell are you, anyway?”
“I’m Josh. This is Sophia and Ajay.”
” doesn’t really answer my question. I mean, are you in on this with Blair? Or did she drug you too?”
“We think we were drugged,” Sophia said, pointing to herself and Josh.
“I was in an accident, so I don’t remember much,” Ajay said.
“You all know each other?”
They each shook their heads in turn.
“We just met,” Josh said.
“How do you know Blair?” Sophia asked.
“She’s my fucking girlfriend.” He paused. “Or ex now, I guess. Although, she’s been an ex for a while, I just didn’t tell her.”
Sophia frowned. “Who does that?”
“Don’t you judge me, Princess. We’ve all had that one hanger-on who won’t get the hint.”
“We don’t really need your history,” Ajay said. “But you must know this place. How do we get out?”
“First of all, you’re all assuming a lot of things about me right off the bat, which I don’t appreciate. Second of all, just because I know the freaky bitch who put me here doesn’t mean I know anything about this building. Yeah, I can infer from the context this is the museum she works at, but I’ve never been here before. She showed me pictures, invited me to openings, but to be honest, I don’t have time to devote to a relationship. She knows that, but she doesn’t respect that.” He brushed a few more splinters off his sleeves and stood. “Come on. I wanna show you something.”
Kieron led them to the far end of the gallery to a door hidden within the floor-to-ceiling shelving. Inside was a room about twenty-by-twenty feet, containing a rack of mostly black clothing and shoes, a rolling chair, and a vanity table. Through the room, another door led them to a small bedroom which contained a twin-sized bed, and a second bed folded against the wall above it. A chest of drawers stood against the opposite wall.
“Does she live here?” Sophia asked.
“She has an apartment in Rego Park near me with a roommate,” Kieron said. “I know she’s here a lot, but this is a new level of commitment.”
“So, we’re still in the city?” Josh asked. “Which museum is this? I don’t recognize anything.”
Kieron shook his head and sat on the mattress. “I take it you hadn’t found this room.”
“There’s a kitchen down the hall,” Sophia said. “And a phone, actually.”
“Wait, you found a phone and didn’t tell us?” Ajay said.
“A lot happened since I found it!”
“Did you hear the voice?” Kieron asked.
“I guess that wasn’t you?” Sophia responded.
“Wait a minute —” Josh said.
Kieron shook his head. “I heard him too, but I never spoke to a lady.”
“What does this mean? What’s going on?” Ajay asked.
“It means we have phones, and they’re disconnected, but someone else in the building is using them to communicate,” Kieron said. “So we got at least one more to find.”
He hadn’t realized how tired he was until everyone left the bedroom to raid the kitchen. Josh lay back on the hard cot mattress and for the moment he shut his eyes, he dreamed of Erica, sitting backstage at a theater Josh never actually visited. The walls were black, and she was staring at him, unmoving, unblinking.
Erica, why did you do this to me? Josh said, but she didn’t reply.
His catnap dissolved with footsteps in the room.
“Oh, sorry,” Sophia said. “Didn’t realize —”
Josh sat up. “I wasn’t sleeping. What’s that?”
Sophia handed him a sealed single serving of cashews. “The guys are raiding the kitchen. I thought you might want something too.”
She sat beside him as he started on the bag. For a moment, the room was silent.
“This is all so weird, isn’t it? Like we’re dreaming.” She held out her bare, slender arms to look them over. “But I’ve never had such sore muscles in a dream. I can only imagine how I’ll feel tomorrow.” Her hand went to her tightly braided scalp, all the way down her long plaits. “My hair is sore. This isn’t even all mine.”
“What do you mean, it’s not —?”
Sophia struggled with the ends of her hair. “Someone glued it shut.” She got up, approached the dresser against the wall, and rifled through the drawers. When she found a pair of manicure scissors, she sliced off the glued ends. After taking a brush from the drawer, she returned to the bed and unravelled one side of her hair.
“I’ll get this one,” Josh said, and worked on the braid closest to him.
Sophia’s cheeks flushed as she suppressed a smile.
“So, you were at the concert?” Josh asked.
“Yeah.” She kept her eyes on her hair. “It was fantastic. I wasn’t even expecting to meet you — guess I got lucky.”
“I’m really sorry I don’t remember much.” He unbraided to her scalp and gently loosened her hair until it hung loose — even the false pieces, which stayed attached to her head in a way he couldn’t figure out. “I hope I wasn’t too unprofessional.”
“I just thought you were having a good time. To be honest …” She worked a strip of hair away from her scalp, removing a long chunk.
“Whoa!” Josh jumped up.
She lay the strip of hair on the bed. “They’re extensions. I told you all this wasn’t mine. Somebody really dolled me up.” She pulled off another piece, wincing.
Josh sat back down. “Does it hurt?”
“Not too much. It’s tape. Thank God they didn’t use super glue.” She removed another piece. “You know what’s weird?”
“Weirder than you taking your hair off?” He took the brush and smoothed her hair as she freed it. Without the extensions, it reached her shoulders, rippled from the braid.
“That woman, Blair, who drugged you at the theater — the same person who was Kieron’s ex girlfriend — sat next to me during the show.”
Josh slowed his brushing. “My show?”
She nodded. “I don’t know, maybe it was last minute. The seats were all the way at the back. You can’t even see the stage from there, really. At intermission, she left.” She pulled off another strip of hair. “I guess it’s not a huge deal buying a cheap seat; it was all I could afford, and I’m sure that’s how it is for a lot of New Yorkers. But then she said she was your sister.”
“Which I don’t have.”
“Right. I’m sure if she were related to you, you’d have gotten her a decent seat. And then she kidnapped us and two other people. I just — I don’t know. I feel guilty, almost responsible.”
“Why would you —?”
“She sat next to me for an hour. We chatted. I didn’t notice anything off, and I should have.” The last piece of false hair went on the bed, leaving Sophia’s tresses all shoulder length.
Josh continued to brush.
“And for her to come back after the show like I wasn’t gonna remember an empty seat for half the performance … And I helped her put you in her car.” Sophia’s voice broke and she turned away.
Josh put the brush on the bed and lay a tentative hand on her shoulder.
“We were in a room full of people who could have intervened,” she continued, “but I kept on believing her. I mean, you were passed out and couldn’t verify anything she was saying. I was a little starstruck, and I guess because I recognized her, I didn’t question what she was saying. I wanted to help and I got us into this.” She sniffed quietly as though trying to pretend she wasn’t crying.
“Hey,” Josh whispered. “Sophia…”
She glanced back at him, her eyes swimming in tears, brow furrowed in anger.
“Maybe if you hadn’t been there to help me you’d be at home right now,” Josh said. “You would have enjoyed the show and dreamed about me and been back at work by now.”
She shut her eyes and a smile tugged her lips.
“Okay, maybe not, but that woman still would have gotten me,” he continued. “And I wouldn’t have learned about how ladies can take their own hair out.”
She laughed and wiped her eyes.
“And they can cry and laugh at the same time, which is the cutest thing I’ve ever seen.”
She laughed harder. “Stop it.”
He dabbed her eyes with his sleeve and held his arms open. “Come here.”
She folded against his chest. A little squeeze, a sniff of her hair. Surely, she’d feel his heart pounding and pull away — but she didn’t.
“Nothing is going to happen to us,” he said. “We’ll be home soon, and until then, I’ll be here if you need to get away from those guys.”
A wolf protecting against wolves.
Her eyes sparkled with unfallen tears, but she smiled.
Josh pressed his forehead against hers. When she tilted her head and their noses bumped, electricity fired thunderbolts in his chest. Her breath on his lips sent a charge rocketing through his groin, calling him to attention.
“What the fuck is this?”
Kieron stood in the doorway.
Josh crossed his legs. “What’s what?”
“Two of you have a thing?” Kieron asked, helping himself to the chest of drawers.
“Why would it be any of your business?” Sophia asked.
Kieron crossed his arms and leaned against the dresser. “Because you told me you didn’t know each other not ten minutes ago. You can see what kind of problem it would be if we started on a foundation of lies.”
“Now, hold on —” Josh said, frowning.
“No, you listen to me. You tell me you don’t know each other, and you don’t know how you got here or how to get out. One of those statements is exposed as a lie and guess what? I think you’re in on the whole thing and you have something to do with me being here.” He stared at them. “I know you don’t want that, so explain to me what the fuck is up.”
Josh approached Kieron and lowered his voice. “She was upset, okay? We’ve all been through a lot in the last twenty-four hours and I was trying to be a good guy. Nobody’s lying to you.”
Kieron held Josh’s gaze a moment longer and returned to the contents of the drawer. He sighed, pulling out a wad of panties. “You know who bought Blair all these? Me.” He threw them back in. “Toothbrush, hair shit, empty bottle of lotion.” He shut the drawer and opened the next one, where he froze. “You sure you don’t wanna tell me anything?”
The drawer contents belonged to a man: boxers, shaving utensils, bars of soap, and a strip of wrapped condoms. As Kieron held up the prophylactics with a loaded question on his lips, Sophia jumped off the bed, swiped them, and ran out of the room.
“She just answered my question.”
“Someone’s obviously living here, but it’s not me.”
Kieron shook his head. Before he could slam the drawer shut, something caught his eye. He dug out a three-by-five photo and his face lost its color.
In the photo was a naked man and woman in bed, in a dim room — this one, if Josh had to guess. The woman held out the camera to photograph herself, while the man spooned behind her, looking sexily into the lens, kissing her bare shoulder.
“Is that —?” Josh whispered.
“Blair and Cy.”
Kieron slammed the drawer so hard the wood cracked, and stormed out of the room.