With a sigh, Joe made his way across the stone-flagged floor to start his search in a likely looking corner.
Joe was surprised at how much of the root cellar's pre-fall content was still here. The farmhouse above had been ransacked many, many times even before Joe's first-ever visit there.
In the long distant past, Joe guessed around the time just after the bombs had fallen, someone had gone to great pains to hide the trapdoor.
By the time Miss Brown had summoned him there, though, the whole building had been cleaned and tidied up and whatever had disguised the location of the trap door had been removed.
And so, Joe found himself rooting through mummified root vegetables and animal skeletons still tied neatly to the rafters and through shelves or glass jars,
their contents long since turned to brown goo. Farm implements, baling wire, magazines, books... All of it undisturbed since those terror-filled days.
But Joe was looking for more recent arrivals and what he was looking for was too big to be amongst the dust-covered jars or books and magazines turned almost to parchment by the dry, stale air.
So, instead, Joe turned his attention to more likely places. He started with the vegetable bins that lined the far wall.
Large, timber-built, wooden boxes a metre square and each with a heavy hinged lid.
What Joe was looking for would be obvious but simple curiosity made him peer deep into the spaces that, just as obviously, didn't hold his hoped-for prize.
The first two of the bins held the dried-out husks of the things the bins were designed to keep safe from pests. Turnips and potatoes were Joe's far from expert guesses.
He was betting on carrots when he opened the third bin.
It wasn't carrots. The bin was more than half-filled with cloth. Rags, was Joe's first thought, as he explored the contents of the bin with his hand.
Like a mechanic would keep, for wiping oily hands on. But, came the immediate and whispered second thought, a rag bin would be in a garage, not a root cellar.
Joe reached around with his left arm for the hurricane lamp and held it high. The yellow light revealed more detail. Clothing, some obviously post-fall and hand made. All kinds... all sizes.
The realisation made Joe jerk violently backwards so that he landed on his butt on the dusty floor. Sweat glistened on his top lip.
"Jesusfuckingchrist." The words came out in a whispered gasp. He stared at the open bin and wiped the back of his hand across his mouth, leaving a smear of wet floor dust.
The open bin stared back at him.
Joe edged slowly forward with his arm outstretched, his fingers anxious to curl over the raised lip of the lid,
his eyes reluctant to look at the accusing evidence of the crumpled and ownerless contents.
Joe slammed the lid down and leaned across it on folded arms with his eyes shut. He allowed a few seconds for the pounding in his chest to settle before pushing himself up to his feet.
Still staring at the now-closed wooden lid, Joe wiped the palms of his hands down his duster.
"Just clothes, just clothes. Not your fault," he breathed. "Not your fault." Joe wiped harder as if trying to expunge more than just the dust of ages off his hands.
Slowly, Joe's resilience returned as he carefully rebuilt the persona that kept the nightmares away.
"Bit of a shock that, Joey boy. Bit of a shock." He took a breath. "Good job no one saw, eh?" He forced the jollity.
"Joe Spivey scared of dirty laundry?!" He looked around the gloomy root cellar, daring the dancing shadows cast by the hurricane lamp. "Not me! Not Joe Spivey! Do you hear! NOT JOE SPIVEY!"
Bolstered by the sound of his own voice and the lack of challenge from the darkness,
Joe buried the incident in the deep hole where all the bad thoughts and memories were put and got back to the job in hand.
He carefully lifted the lid of the next bin, not quite sure what he would do if it, too, was full of discarded clothing. But it wasn't, and a broad smile creased Joe's face.
All alone in the middle of the deep bin was the thing that Joe had come looking for.
Anyone giving it a casual glance would have seen an old aluminium beer keg with some fancy coupler where the beer line and the airline attached to.
But Joe recognised it for what it really was immediately. This was one of the two unaccounted for nasty devices that had formed the crux of one of the bitch's insane schemes.
Joe kneeled down in front of the open bin and leaned his body forward. Pursing his lips, he blew the dust off the top of the modified coupler.
Then, with discoloured tongue held between discoloured teeth, Joe very carefully hooked a thumbnail under the cap. He held his breath and flipped it upwards.
A tiny display screen, and beneath that an equally tiny alpha/numeric keypad both lit up.
"You fucking beauty." Joe looked at the steady glow for a few seconds before flipping the lid back down. He shifted position, the better to take a good hold of the barrel and lift it out.
Just before his filthy fingers touched the surface of the keg, he stopped. Joe's brain clicked up a few gears.
It had been at least two years since the barrel had been put here. What if... what if... what was the bloody word... oh yeah, what if it had become, 'unstable'.
What if the mechanism was all buggered up? Broken spring or something?
Joe pulled his hands back and stared at the barrel, frowning. A mush full of nerve gas was not a good way to go.
Further deliberations were interrupted by a noise behind him and Joe, still crouched, spun around on his heels. His hand already pulling back on the hammers of the sawn-off.
Only then did the sound fully register. It was scratching.
Rats was his first thought, and Joe relaxed. Ah, but wait... was the second thought.
Can you smell rat? If there was rat activity down here, you'd smell them, wouldn't you? Because rats piss, and rat piss stinks to high heaven, don't it?
"Bugger," Joe whispered under his breath.
The scratching came from the darkness of the cell.
Still crouched, Joe took the hurricane lamp in one hand, his sawn-off shotgun in the other and slowly waddled across to the open cell door.
As he moved closer, the creeping circle of light brightened the gloom and revealed, nothing. The cell was empty. Just the mattress and the bucket. But still, there was that sound of scratching.
Convinced now that it was a rat, despite the lack of parfum-de-rodent, Joe stood up and slung the shotty back to his belt.
Holding the lamp high and squinting down to where the walls met the floor, Joe entered the cell. He stepped slowly closer to the far wall where the scratching seemed to be coming from.
Ready to stamp on whatever scuttled out, Joe kicked the mattress away from the black painted wall. But there was no rat there, just the scratching.
So, Joe bent down. Maybe it was in the wall. The scratching stopped, and Joe squinted. There was something there.
He put the hurricane lamp down on the hard, stone floor and knelt down to look closer.
"What the fu...?" Joe's eyebrows met in the middle.
Right down near the bottom of the wall. Just above where the mattress had been was a drawing scratched into the black paint. It was a house. And a tree.
And a sun, a sun like a child might draw it with big rays coming out from the centre circle. In front of the house were two stick figures. Joe looked closer. One of the figures was a lady.
The other was a little girl. For a moment, Joe smiled. It was cute. But then he remembered where he was. The lady had a smiley face. A big semi-circle mouth turned up at the ends.
The exact opposite of the big semi-circle sad face on the little girl. It was only then that Joe noticed that the scratches that made up the drawing... were new.
Joe's head spun around just in time to see the paint-chipped bars of the cell door swinging closed. The door had a spring latch. If it closed, only the key would open it.
The key that had been in the lock when he entered the cellar, but now wasn't. Sheer survival instinct powered the muscles in Joe's legs, propelling him almost horizontally across the cell.
If he had wasted time trying to get to his feet, he would never have made it.
As it was, Joe just had time to fling out an arm and the heavy cell door crunched against his fingers before bouncing slowly open again.
Joe screamed but didn't dare move his hand. Instead, he slithered and crawled towards the door.
Only when most of his body was on the other side of the bars did he lift his arm and nurse the mangled fingers under his arm. Then the scratching started again. Louder, angrier.
Joe glanced towards the still open vegetable bin and his prize. Fuck that, he thought. Joe slammed the cell door closed and bolted for the cellar stairs.
Long after the noise of Joe's car engine had faded, the tiny flame of the hurricane lamp puttered and died and all that could be heard was the cooling of the glass.
When this, too, had at last ceased and only silence remained there was a single click, and the cell door swung open just as it had been before.
Above the burned-out shell of the farmhouse. Above the old tree in the field. Above the little patch of green, fertile ground nearby, the stars twinkled into view.
In the cellar, something scratched at the walls.