I began to store the groceries in the nearly empty cupboards on the wide paper-lined shelves and in the fridge without a word. Riley kept coming in and out of the little cottage grumbling about all the bags he had to carry. Since most of the food was for him to devour, I simply continued emptying the bags without a word. Soon he was yanking the ice cooler through the living room and he shoved it beneath the small dining room table with a thick grunt. The chill from outside followed him along with some scattered flakes of snow. The blizzard was quickly blanketing everything and showing no signs of stopping.
"Esmeralda, do you have something against heating this place?" His breath rolled out with his words in a fog, giving visual proof to the icy conditions inside as well as out. Reluctantly I looked over the arm full of blankets I'd just pulled from one of the various shopping bags and sighed.
"Riley, I don't know what's wrong with the furnace. I just came in and it's supposed to be a balmy seventy, not hovering around seventeen degrees." I dropped the blankets, still in their packages, onto the corner of the couch. One slid off and down on the floor. I bent over and picked it up.
"Well, call the damn landlord and get it fixed!" He snarled and I resisted throwing the blanket at him with sheer strength of will since he seemed determined to push my buttons. I don't think he'd much enjoyed the long flight from Southern California to Michigan with all the delays and plane changes. I hadn't asked him to come, but Uncle Harry had sent him despite my protests. Somehow that got lost in the travel time and the miserable conditions he'd enjoyed along the way.
Instead of throwing the blanket at him, I glanced outside to the falling snow and bit back another sigh. I was pretty sure that the landlord or anyone associated with the rental would not come out in a blizzard to fuss with the defunct furnace. Keeping my thoughts to myself, I picked up the phone and tried to reach someone anyway.
After twenty minutes of talking to answering services and various message machines I gave up and asked Riley, "Why don't you see if you can fix it?"
He looked at me from where he was pouting on the edge of the couch and said, "Yeah, not like I could break it, huh?"
"That was my thought." I smiled back and pointed towards the back door saying, "It's down in the basement. The key is on the ring next to the back door."
He grabbed up one of the blankets and covered his head while going towards the back door. He'd chosen a nice pretty blue that didn't go at all with his scowling face. Another thought I kept to myself, not figuring he'd have much of a sense of humor about my musings.
So I continued to pull out the food from the remaining bags, storing them wherever I could fit them in the quickly-filling fridge and freezer without much thought. The mindless activity was calming me down. My day hadn't exactly been normal, and with the freezing conditions, it didn't look like it'd be going back to basics anytime soon.
The last can of soup was put on a now-full shelf when Riley burst back in saying, "What a fucking cheap ass landlord! There was nothing wrong with the furnace other than he hadn't filled the water and had it cranked down to the lowest temperature possible. The water is running and I adjusted the temperature up in that hoarder's nightmare of a space. Have you been inside the basement?"
Shaking my head I said, "Nope, didn't see the need. So why did the temperature drop so suddenly? It was warmer yesterday."
Laughing, Riley said, "From the signs and smells down stairs your landlord either came over this morning while you were out shopping, or maybe yesterday. That was when he probably turned the furnace down."
I went to the gauge on the wall and tapped the dial.
Riley looked at me and said, "I don't think it's hooked to anything." Not satisfied with simply telling me, he tugged the device off the wall and showed me that nothing was hooked to the back of the dial nor were there any wires coming out from the wall.
"Damn, that is so wrong." I could hear the steam starting to hiss softly out of the radiator against the wall. It wasn't immediately making the room warmer but the sound at least was reassuring. Riley chuckled and headed back outside.
"Where you going?" I took a minute to put the faux fixture back in place. I felt my back teeth grind at the idea of a fake thermostat but there wasn't much I could do.
"Back out to make sure the furnace is filling properly and setting a nice noisy trap in case the guy tries to sneak back in and lower your heat." I nodded my approval and he seemed happy to be busy tinkering with something. I had a fissure of worry that Riley could possibly use a real steel trap to catch the man, but shook off that stray worry without asking the werewolf. Hopefully he was just setting up a stack of empty cans and bottles at the top of the stairs to clatter down if someone walked inside. The idea of a bear trap springing around my landlord's ankle kept gnawing into my thoughts but I shoved the notion firmly back and pondered my real worry.
I still didn't have a clue why Uncle Harry felt so determined that Riley had to watch over me while I went into the salt mines below Detroit, but at the same time I kind of felt good about it. I didn't know what Riley would be able to do with me a thousand feet below the earth. He would have to get in an elevator and journey towards the mines if he felt the need to 'rescue' me. Given that he was really claustrophobic, it could prove to be a really nasty challenge. I didn't even know if the elevator in the shaft functioned properly. In the previous decades people had gone up and down with guided groups. But I had read that the mine had been abandoned years ago. There was a new corporation that owned the shaft and the mine but they hadn't done much but get a snappy little write up in a few local papers.
I was going to have to explain the whole idea to Riley, I knew without being told. He wasn't going to like the trip down the elevator if I got stuck and there weren't other entrances easily accessible. The area had lots of interesting history. The beginnings were when the salt was first used by Indian tribes who filtering it from salt springs in the area. They were able to salt meats and hides that kept the various bands and tribes alive through the cold nasty Michigan winters. The existence of an enormous rock salt deposit was officially discovered in 1895. There was just one problem, it was beneath a thousand feet of stone and glacial drift. Imagine that it was deeper than the Empire State Building is tall, so it wasn't somewhere to go lightly.
Something that was concerning me was a passage that I'd read in one of the more mystical books I'd found, that seemed to imply that the salt mines could keep me trapped because the salt acted as a protective circle. The writer had gone on to suggest a strong possibility that the salt that existed there was quite easily magical in nature, after decades of miners and workers praying for protection and survival; magic had been chanted into the very walls. Thus it was thought that the salt walls created a chamber of will, and protected souls. So it was a worry gnawing in my thoughts that there would be no way for me to leave once I popped into the salt mines. Once down over a thousand feet beneath the ground there would be no way for me to escape without possibly getting trapped between the mine and the top of earth. It kept itching at the back of my mind that I couldn't count on making it all the way out. Vampires like Uncle Harry knew better than risking their own skin where there was the chance of magic being used. And I figured Riley had his own terms and notions of why he was here in Detroit, fixing my furnace, not back in sunny Southern California walking along a beach.
Riley stomped back into the house and cursed a blue streak. Shaking like a wet dog in the doorway, he shook off the blue blanket and growled, "Well, that's fixed for now. I need something hot to eat."
Not wanting to make him get any more upset I said, "Sure, let me fix you some soup."
Snarling at me, obviously soup wasn't food to him, "No, I'll make my own meal."
He began to rattle various pots and pans searching for a skillet. Once he'd found a large cast iron skillet, he popped it on top of the stove and dialed up the gas. Then he pulled out a chunk of steak I'd picked up. He set the meat on the counter while rummaging through the cupboards. Once he found the olive oil he grabbed the salt and pepper and began seasoning the rib-eye. I seemed to recall it had been nearly three pounds of meat. I had a sinking feeling all the supplies I'd picked up weren't going to last through the blizzard at his current rate of consumption.
Riley stopped long enough to offer, "You want me to make you anything?"
"No, I'm good." And I actually was. I sat at the table and watched him make his food. The house wasn't getting warm very fast but the radiators all around were hissing pleasantly while the winds and snow hammered the outside. I settled back further in my chair and wondered how to approach my little trip.
Something of what I was thinking must have leaked out because Riley dropped the slab of meat on the surface of the red-hot skillet and turned to me. "Why the hell did you choose the dead of winter to drop a thousand feet below the earth?" I gathered Uncle Harry had filled Riley in with a bit of my scheme.
"Less chance of being seen," I truthfully replied while watching smoke billow from the sizzling meat into the small kitchen. Thankfully the landlord had apparently also skimped on batteries in the smoke alarm detectors, since nothing screamed out in alarm but my lungs.
As the smoke thickened I raised an arm and waved off the smoke. Arching an eyebrow at Riley, I pointedly looked at the stove top and asked, "Charring food nicely, might you want to open a window and let some of the smoke out?"
He pushed the button on the fan above the stove and some of the smoke dissipated but not enough. I began coughing as the oxygen was being devoured by the growing layer of smoke.
Seeing that the fan wasn't pulling out much from the room, Riley opened up the back door and the blizzard pushed inside, allowing some of the smoke to escape. Still coughing roughly, I went to the front door and opened it, letting the winter pour through and the wind push the rest of the greasy smoke out. Riley yanked the meat off the skillet and put the still dripping charred mess onto a large serving plate. The red blood oozed up through the blackened meat making my stomach turn. No, I wouldn't be eating anytime soon.