Thyme, a word derived from the Greek, thymus, stood for courage. Until finding the Chinese symbol for courage on the coffin, Nine hadn’t considered the family having Chinese origins. She had chosen her tattoo with Chinese symbols because it looked cool, but she began to realize there had been more—whispers from ancestors in her blood—behind her decision on her sixteenth birthday. In the nineteenth century, Chinese immigrants had arrived to help build the railroad, so a culture clash between European and Chinese ancestry was probable. Nine considered perhaps Vampire Thyme wasn’t as old as Augustus had believed unless Xavier and his boss, Yasmine, were mistaken.
Or Vampire Thyme had taken to resting here in his later years. Did vampires actually sleep in coffins? It seemed silly. More reasonable to expect family secrets or a fallen offspring within the coffin.
Nine shivered, and her stomach twisted into knots.
She recalled the blood splattering her face shield as she sawed away at the neck of the Itoril held by his skull on the mortuary table. Yesterday she had murdered, and tonight she invaded a forgotten ancestral tomb. Whatever happened to simple evenings of painting the faces on corpses? Now she wished she had gone to work at Peter’s restaurant. Recently Peter had dealt with a late-night robbery, minor excitement compared to her week full of murder and pompous Itorils.
Waving her phone splashing the light around, Nine searched the chamber. Dog prints, coyote perhaps, tracked over the dusty stone floor. An animal carcass, broken bones and bits of hide, sat in a corner.
For a quick photo of the etching, Nine crept over to the foot of the coffin. As she stepped beside the wall, her shoe caught something, and she felt it depress into the stone beneath her toe.
A click, and the wall beside her moved, grumbling loudly, descending into the floor. Swinging her phone around, she aimed the light into a passageway meeting stone stairs leading upwards into darkness.
“Holy shit,” said Nine.
Her voice surprising her, she clamped her hand over her mouth.
Curiosity pulled her into the passageway, and she climbed the narrow stairs. At the top, she found another chamber. Two sarcophagi, one on each side, sat against the walls. Ahead, a narrow window revealed the graveyard along the woods lit by a lamp over the walking path.
The family sepulcher.
Nine stepped inside, and the floor rumbled. Spinning around, she splashed the light at the wall rising up from the floor and thumping against the ceiling hiding the passageway.
“Gotta be kidding me.”
Dabbing her toe at the floor, she searched for a button that might trigger the secret door. Nothing. Moving the light around, she examined the empty walls.
Her phone display flashed the low battery warning.
No signal within the heavy stone structure; no calling for help before the battery died.
At the window, she took in the slow-motion melting glass over the bottom ledge and examined the top, glass so thin it barely clung to the frame. Knocking out the window and wriggling out appeared a possibility as a last resort. She spotted the markings in the dust, her name written backward on the inside. At least now she knew the trickster had a way in and out down the stairs through the old tomb.
Turning back to the secret door, she examined the wall between the two sarcophagi. With the light held close to the wall, she could make out the edges of the secret exit. Standing before the door, she began tapping the floor with her toes. If this door was anything like downstairs, the pressure stone should be off to the side. She dabbed at the floor in one direction and then tapped her way in the other.
The bare walls didn’t offer any clues.
Shining the light at the base of one sarcophagus, at a bronze plaque set into the stone, she learned the name of one of her mysterious ancestors: Mathilda Thyme. On the topic of the secret exit, the base remained as silent as the walls.
Reading the plaque beneath the other box, Nine froze.
She had never been told she had been named for an ancestor, stranger still, a woman with a date for a name. So odd and so connected, she felt a strong desire to look inside the stone coffin.
Nine turned off the flashlight and slipped her phone into her pocket. Stepping to the end she hoped was the head, she squatted. With both hands, she gripped the lid and pushed the hefty top. Dry air puffed out the crack. Grumbling against the friction, the lid came to a stop leaving a foot-wide gap.
She pulled her phone out, tapped the flashlight icon, and aimed the light inside.
Empty. Clean, too, as if never occupied.
The phone flashlight went out, and the murky glow from the narrow window cast the sepulcher in a gloom.
“Naturally,” said Nine, referring to the empty resting place. The strange name had to be an answer to a riddle, but what was the question? It didn’t make much sense leaving a clue on an empty sarcophagus inside a sepulcher unless the location was part of the riddle.
Reaching into the box, she began feeling around the smooth surface searching for a button or lever that might open the door. Stretching deeper, she wriggled into the narrow opening. Smooth as a tub and free of dust, nothing hid within the sarcophagus.
Her stomach tumbled over, insides lurched, and she felt nauseous. Scrambling, she pulled herself out and took in a gulp of air. Sitting on the edge of the box, she held her head in her hands and waited for her stomach to settle.
Images of the Itoril man, his head locked in a vice on the mortuary table and clawing at her, came slamming into the forefront of her mind. She watched it again, cutting furiously into the Itoril’s neck, the blood splattering over her vision.
Gut rumbling, hot liquid charged up and stung her throat. She swallowed the burning back down.
Trying to expel the horror away, Nine focused on her immediate problem. Somehow, ɘniИ had found her way out and pulled that prank cutting all the flowers in the chapel. The prankster was out there somewhere now, but who was ɘniИ? The sepulcher and the tomb below appeared barely touched ruling out a resident or frequent visitor.
Standing, Nine felt a click beneath her heel, and the room rumbled. In the dim light she could barely make out the wall opening up at the top of the stairs. Peering down into the shadows beside her feet, she wiggled her foot around feeling the indentation in the floor up against the pedestal, an unlikely place to step.
Nine tasted blood.
She licked her finger. Holding her hand up to the light, she found nothing, but the taste remained. She shook her head in disgust at memories messing with her mind.
Arms outstretched, she felt her way into the narrow opening and down the stairs. Spotting light seeping in from the gate, she scurried for the exit eager to get home and into the bathtub. Legs weakening, she slumped against the wall. The air grew heavy. Her head floated.
Darkness embraced her.