Tunnels 01 tunnels, p.10
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       Tunnels 01 - Tunnels, p.10
 

           Roderick Gordon

  Terrified and out of his wits, he was tripping and sliding on the slick cobblestones as the figures amassed behind him in such numbers that they were indiscernible from one another, sweeping into a single blanket of darkness. Their fingers extended like wisps of animated black smoke, clutching at him as he desperately tried to elude them. But the shadowy figures had hold of him; they were tugging him back with their inky tendrils until he was forced to a complete standstill. Catching a brief glimpse of his father in the distance, Will screamed a silent scream. The jet black blanket folded over him; he was all at once weightless and falling into a pit. He hit the bottom with such impact that it knocked the air from his lungs and, gasping for breath, he rolled onto his back and saw for the first time the stern and disapproving faces of his pursuers as they peered down at him.

  He opened his mouth, but before he knew what was happening, it was filled with dirt — he could taste it as it smothered his tongue, and stones dashed and scratched against his teeth. He was being buried alive — he couldn't breathe.

  * * * * *

  Gagging and retching, Will awoke, his mouth dry and his body dripping with cold sweat as he sat up. In a panic he fumbled for his bedside light. With a click, its comforting yellow glow bathed the room in reassuring normality. He glanced at his alarm clock. It was still the middle of the night. He fell back onto his pillow, staring at the ceiling and breathing heavily, his body still trembling. The memory of the soil clogging his throat was as fresh and vivid in his mind as if it had really happened. And as he lay there, catching his breath, he was plagued by a renewed and even more acute sense of loss for his father. However hard he tried, he just couldn't shake off the overwhelming hollowness, and in the end he gave up any pretense of sleep, watching as the cold light of dawn began to lick around the edges of the curtains and finally stole into the room.

  15

  The weeks passed, until finally a police inspector came by to speak to Mrs. Burrows about her husband's disappearance. He wore a dark blue raincoat over a light gray suit and was well spoken, if a little brusque, as he introduced himself to Will and Rebecca and asked to see their mother. They showed him into the living room, where she sat waiting.

  As they followed the policeman they gasped, thinking that somehow they must have entered the wrong room. The television, that eternal flame that burned in the corner, was silent and dark, and — just as remarkable — the room was incredibly neat and tidy. During the time when Mrs. Burrows had led her hermitlike existence and neither Will nor Rebecca had set foot inside, both had assumed it had degenerated into an unholy mess, and they pictured it littered with half-consumed food, empty wrappers, and dirty plates and cups. They couldn't have been more wrong. It now looked spotless — but what was more astounding was their mother herself. Instead of her drab couch-potato garb of bathrobe and slippers, she had changed into one of her best summer dresses, done her hair, and even put on some makeup.

  Will stared at her in sheer disbelief, wondering what in the world could have brought about this abrupt transformation. He could only think that she was imagining she was playing a part in one of the TV murder mystery series she so adored, but this didn't make the scene before him any more explicable.

  "Mum, this is… this is…" he spluttered.

  "Detective Chief Inspector Beatty," his sister helped him out.

  "Please do come in," Mrs. Burrows said, rising from her armchair and smiling pleasantly.

  "Thank you, Mrs. Burrows… I know this is a difficult time."

  "No, not at all." Mrs. Burrows beamed. "Rebecca, would you please put the kettle on and make us all a nice cup of tea?"

  "That's very kind, thank you, ma'am," Inspector Beatty said, hovering awkwardly in the center of the room.

  "Please." Mrs. Burrows motioned toward the sofa. "Please, make yourself comfortable."

  "Will, you can give me a hand," Rebecca said, grabbing her brother by the arm as she tried to shepherd him toward the door. He didn't move, still rooted to the spot by the sight of his mother who, it seemed, was once more the woman she hadn't been for years.

  "Uh… yeah… oh, yes…" he managed.

  "Do you take sugar?" Rebecca asked the detective, still tugging at Will's arm.

  "No, white and no sugar, thank you," he replied.

  "Right, milk, no sugar — and Mum, just the two sweeteners?"

  Her mother smiled and nodded at her, and then at Will, as if she was amused by his bewilderment. "And maybe some cookies, Will?"

  Will snapped out of his trance, turned, and accompanied Rebecca into the kitchen, where he stood in wide-mouthed disbelief, shaking his head.

  * * * * *

  While Will and Rebecca were out of the room, the detective spoke to Mrs. Burrows in a low, serious voice. He said that they had been doing everything they could to locate Dr. Burrows, but since there was no news at all of his whereabouts they had decided to step up the investigation. This would entail circulating the photograph of Dr. Burrows more widely and conducting a "detailed interview," as he put it, with her down at the station. They also wanted to speak to anyone else who'd had contact with Dr. Burrows just prior to his disappearance.

  "I'd like to ask you a few questions now, if that's all right. Let's start with your husband's job," the detective said, looking at the door and wondering when his tea was going to arrive. "Did he mention anyone in particular at the museum?"

  "No," Mrs. Burrows replied.

  "I mean, is there someone there he might have confided in…?"

  "About where he's gone?" Mrs. Burrows completed the sentence for him, and then laughed coldly. "You won't have any luck with that line of investigation, I'm afraid. That's a dead end."

  The detective sat up in his chair, a little baffled by Mrs. Burrows's response.

  She continued. "He runs the place single-handed; their isn't any other staff. You might consider interviewing the old codgers that hung out with him, but don't be surprised if their memories aren't what they used to be."

  "No?" Inspector Beatty said, a small smile showing at the edges of his mouth as he wrote in his notebook.

  "No, most of them are in their eighties. And why, may I ask, do you want to interview me and my children? I have already told the police everything I know. Shouldn't you be putting out an APB?"

  "An APB?" The detective grinned broadly. "We don't use that term here in England. We put emergencies out over the radio—"

  "And my husband isn't an emergency, I suppose?"

  At that moment, Will and Rebecca appeared with the tea, and the room went quiet as Rebecca put the tray on the coffee table and passed around the mugs. Will, clutching a plate of cookies, also entered the room and, since the detective didn't seem to object to either him or Rebecca remaining there, they both sat down. The silence grew uneasily. Mrs. Burrows was glaring at the detective, who was looking into his tea.

  "I think we may be getting ahead of ourselves here, Mrs. Burrows. Can we just focus on your husband again?" he said.

  "I think you will find that we are all very focused on him. It's you I'm worried about," Mrs. Burrows said tersely.

  "Mrs. Burrows, you have to realize that some people don't…" the detective began, "…don't want to be found. They want to disappear because, maybe, life and its pressures have become too much for them to handle."

  "Too much to handle?" Mrs. Burrows echoed furiously.

  "Yes, we have to take that possibility into consideration."

  "My husband couldn't take pressure? What pressure, exactly? The problem was that he never had any pressure at all — or drive, for that matter."

  "Mrs. B—" The detective tried to get a word in, glancing helplessly at Will and Rebecca, who were both looking back and forth from him to their mother as if they were spectators watching a rally in a particularly savage tennis match.

  "Don't think I don't know that most murders are committed by family members," their mother proclaimed.

  "Mrs. Burr—"

  "That's why you w
ant to question us at the station, isn't it? To find out whether we dunnit."

  "Mrs. Burrows," the detective began again quietly, "nobody's suggesting that a murder has been committed here. Do you think we might start over, see if we can get off on the right foot this time?" he proposed, valiantly trying to regain control of the situation.

  "Sorry. I know you're only doing your job," Mrs. Burrows said in a calmer voice, then sipped her tea.

  Inspector Beatty nodded, grateful she had stopped her tirade, and took a deep breath as he glanced down at his notebook. "I know it's a difficult thing to think about," he said, "but did your husband have any enemies? Maybe from business dealings?"

  At this, much to Will's surprise, Mrs. Burrows put her head back and laughed out loud. The detective muttered something about taking that as a no as he scribbled in his little black notebook. He seemed to have regained some of his composure.

  "I have to ask these questions," he said, looking straight at Mrs. Burrows. "Did you ever know him to drink excessively or take drugs?"

  Again Mrs. Burrows unleashed a loud hoot of laughter. "Him?" she said. "You've got to be joking!"

  "Righto. So what did he do in his spare time?" the detective asked in a flat voice, trying his very best to get the questions over and done with as quickly as he could. "Did he have any hobbies?"

  Rebecca immediately shot a glance at Will.

  "He used to do excavations… archaeological digs," Mrs. Burrows answered.

  "Oh, yes." The detective turned to Will. "I understand you helped him out, didn't you, son?" Will nodded. "And where did you do all this digging?"

  Will cleared his throat and looked at his mother, and then at Inspector Beatty, who was waiting, pen held expectantly in hand, for an answer.

  "Well, all over, really," Will said. "Near the edge of town, at garbage dumps and places like that."

  "Oh, I thought they were official undertakings," the detective said.

  "They were real digs," Will said firmly. "We found the site of a Roman villa once, but mostly it was eighteenth- and nineteenth-century stuff we were after.

  "Just how extensive… I mean, how deep were the holes you dug?"

  "Oh, just pits, really," Will said evasively, willing the detective not to pursue this line of questioning.

  "And were you engaged in any such activities around the time of his disappearance?"

  "No, we weren't," Will said, very aware of Rebecca's eyes burning into him.

  "You're sure he wasn't working on anything, maybe without your knowledge?"

  "No, I don't think so."

  "OK, then," the detective said, putting away his notebook. "That's enough for now."

  * * * * *

  The next day, Chester and Will didn't hang around outside school for long. They spotted Speed and one of his faithful followers, Bloggsy, loitering a little distance beyond the gates.

  "I think he's looking for a rematch," Will said, glancing over at Speed, who glared straight back at him until Chester caught his eye. At this point, Speed contemptuously turned his back on them, muttering something under his breath to Bloggsy, who simply sneered in their direction and gave a harsh, derogatory laugh.

  "Couple of jerks," Chester growled as he and Will set off, deciding to take the shortcut home.

  Leaving their school behind them, a sprawling modern yellow-brick-and-glass job, they sauntered across the road and entered the adjoining housing projects. Built in the 1970s, the projects were known locally as Roach City, for obvious reasons, and the infested blocks that made up the development were in a constant state of disrepair, with many of the apartments abandoned or burned out. This in itself didn't cause the boys any hesitation, but the trouble with the route was that it took them right through the home turf of the Click, who made Spped and his gang look like Girl Scouts.

  As they walked side by side through the projects, the weak rays of the sun glinting off broken glass on the blacktop and in the gutters, Will slackened his pace almost imperceptibly, but enough that Chester noticed.

  "What's up?"

  "I don't know," Will said, glancing up and down the road and peering apprehensively into a side street as they passed by.

  "Come on, tell me," Chester asked, looking quickly around. "I really don't fancy getting jumped in here."

  "It's just a feeling; it's nothing," Will insisted.

  "Speed's got you all paranoid, hasn’t he?" Chester replied with a smile, but nevertheless he sped up, forcing Will to do likewise.

  As they left the projects behind them, they resumed a more normal pace. Very soon they reached the start of Main Street

  , which was marked by the museum. As Will did every evening, he glanced at it in the vain hope that the lights would be burning, the doors open, and his father back in attendance. Will just wanted everything to be normal again — whatever that was — but once again the museum was closed, its windows dark and unfriendly. The town council had evidently made the decision that for now it was cheaper to simply shut it rather than look for a temporary stand-in for Dr. Burrows.

  Will looked up at the sky; heavy clouds were beginning to pull across and blank out the sun.

  "Should go well tonight," he said, his mood lifting. "It's getting dark earlier, so we won't have to wait as long to start tipping."

  Chester had begun to talk about how much faster the proceedings would be if they could do away with all this cloak-and-dagger subterfuge when Will mumbled something under his breath.

  "Didn't catch that, Will."

  "I said: Don't look now, but I think there's somebody following us."

  "You what?" Chester replied and, not being able to stop himself, immediately turned around to look behind.

  "Chester, you prat!" Will snapped.

  Sure enough, thirty feet or so behind them was a short, stocky man in a trilby, black glasses, and a dark, tentlike overcoat that reached almost to his ankles. His head was facing in their direction, although it was difficult to tell if he was actually looking at them.

  "Rats!" Chester whispered. "I think you're right. He's just like the ones your dad wrote about in his journal."

  Despite Will's previous instruction to Chester not to look at the man, he now couldn't stop himself from peering back for another glimpse.

  "A 'man-in-a-hat'?" Will said with a mixture of wonder and apprehension.

  "But he's not after us, is he?" Chester asked. "Why should he be?"

  "Let's slow down a little and see what he does," Will suggested.

  As they reduced their speed, the mysterious man did likewise. "OK," Will said, "how about if we cross the road?"

  Again the man mirrored their actions, and when they increased their pace again, he quickened his, to maintain the distance between them.

  "He's definitely following us," Chester said, the panic audible in his voice for the first time. "Why, though? What does he want? I don't like this — I think we should take the next right and make a run for it."

  "I don't know," Will said, deep in thought. "I think we should confront him."

  "You've got to be joking! Your dad disappeared off the face of the planet not long after seeing these people and, for all we know, this man could be responsible. He might be part of the gang or something. I say we get out of here and call the police. Or get help from someone."

  They were silent for a moment as they looked around.

  "No, I've got a better idea," Will said. "What if we turn th tables? Trap him. If we split up, he can only follow one of us, and when he does, the other can come up behind him and…"

  "And what?"

  "Like a pincer movement — sneak up from behind and nobble him." Will was getting well into his stride now as the plan of action firmed up in his mind.

  "He could be dangerous, totally postal for all we know. And what are we going to nobble him with? Our school bags?"

  "Come on, there's two of us and only one of him," Will said as the shops on Main Street

  came into view. "I'll distract
him while you tackle him — you can do that, can't you?"

  "Oh, great, thanks," Chester said, shaking his head. "He's freakin' huge — he'll make hamburger meat of me!"

  Will looked into Chester's eyes and smiled mischievously.

  "All right, all right." Chester sighed. "The things I do…," he said as he looked quickly back and then made to cross the road.

  "Whoa! Scratch that," Will said. "I think they've got the jump on us!"

  "They?" Chester gasped as he rejoined his friend. "What do you mean, they? " he asked, following Will's gaze to a point farther up the street.

  There in front of them, some twenty paces ahead, was another of the men. He was almost identical to the first one, except that he sported a flat cap pulled down low over his forehead so that his dark glasses were only just visible under its peak. He also wore a long, voluminous coat, which was flapping gently in the wind as he stood in the middle of the sidewalk.

  There was now no question in Will's mind that these two men were after them.

  As Will and Chester drew level with the first of the shops on Main Street

  , they both stopped and peered around. On the opposite side of the street two old ladies were chatting to each other as they bundled along with their wicker shopping carts creaking on their wheels. One was dragging behind her a recalcitrant Scottish terrier decked out in a tartan dog coat. Apart from that, there were only a few people, off in the distance.

  Their minds were racing with thoughts of shouting for help or flagging down a car if one happened to pass by when the man in front started toward them. As the two men closed in, Will and Chester both realized they were rapidly running out of options.

  "This is too weird, we're well and truly snookered, who the heck are these guys?" Chester said, his words running into one another as he stared back over his shoulder at the man in the trilby hat. As he advanced toward them, the heavy thud of his boots on the pavement sounded like a pile driver. "Any bright ideas?" Chester asked desperately.

  "Right, listen, we hoof it across the road straight toward the one in the flat cap, fake right, then cut left and duck into Clarke's. Got it?" Will said breathlessly as the flat-capped man in front of them loomed closer and closer. Chester hadn't got the remotest idea what Will was proposing, but under the circumstances he was ready to agree to anything.

 
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