Tunnels 01 tunnels, p.11
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       Tunnels 01 - Tunnels, p.11

           Roderick Gordon
 

  Clarke Brothers was the main grocery store on Main Street

  , with a brightly striped awning and immaculately arranged stalls of fruits and vegetables at either side of its entrance. Now that the daylight was beginning to dwindle, the glare spilling out from the shop windows beckoned to them invitingly, like a beacon. The man in the flat cap was caught in its glow, his wide, muscular form almost blocking the entire width of the sidewalk.

  "Now!" Will shouted, and they charged into the street. The two men swept in to intercept the boys, who were sprinting down the road at top speed, their school bags bouncing wildly on their backs. The men moved much faster than either Will or Chester had anticipated, and their plan quickly turned into a chaotic game of tag as the two boys dodged and weaved between the lumbering men, who tried to snatch at them with huge, outstretched hands.

  Will squawked as one of them caught hold of him by the scruff of his neck. Then, more by accident than design, Chester hurtled straight into the man. The impact knocked off his dark glasses to reveal bright pupils, shining devilishly like two black pearls under the brim of his hat. As he turned in surprise, Will took the opportunity to push himself away, putting both hands against the man's chest. The collar of Will's blazer ripped off with a rending tear as he did so.

  The man, momentarily distracted by the impact with Chester, growled and whipped around to will again. Slinging away the detached collar, he lunged in a renewed effort to grab him.

  In a blind panic, Chester, his head down and his shoulders bunched up, and Will, half falling and half whirling like an uncoordinated dervish, somehow made it to the door of Clarke's as the man wearing the trilby lurched forward, took a last swipe at them, and missed.

  Will's and Chester's momentum carried them straight through the door, squashed together between the jambs as the bell above rang like a demented hall monitor. They ended up in an unruly heap on the floor of the store, and Chester, coming to his senses, immediately twisted around and slammed the door shut, holding it closed with both feet.

  "Boys, boys, boys!" said Mr. Clarke the younger, teetering perilously on a stepladder as he arranged a display of imported coconuts on a shelf. "What's all the pandemonium? A sudden desperate yearning for my exotic fruits?"

  "Um, not exactly," Will said, trying to catch his breath as he picked himself up from the floor and made an attempt to act natural, despite the fact that Chester was now standing somewhat awkwardly with his shoulder braced against the door behind him.

  At this point, Mr. Clarke the older rose from behind the counter like a human periscope.

  "What was that terrible racket?" he asked, clutching papers and receipts in both hands.

  "Nothing for you to worry about, brother dear." Mr. Clarke junior smiled at him. "Don't let us distract you from your paperwork. It's just a couple of ruffians in search of some rather special fruit, I'll wager."

  "Well, I hope they don't want kumquats; we are all out of kumquats at the moment," Mr. Clarke senior groaned from behind the counter.

  "Don't you mind my older brother; he always gets in such a tizzy when he's doing the books. Paper, paper everywhere, and not a drop to ink," Mr. Clarke junior declaimed, adopting a theatrical pose in front of an imagined audience.

  The Clarke brothers were a neighborhood institution. They had inherited the business from their father, as he had from his father before him. For all anybody knew, there had probably been a Clarke in business when the Romans invaded, selling turnips or whatever vegetables were in vogue at the time. Mr. Clarke junior was in his forties, a flamboyant character with a penchant for hideously garish blazers that he had custom-made by a local tailor. Dazzling lemon-yellow, puce-pink, and powder-blue stripes danced between the tables of sensibly red tomatoes and downright soberly green cabbages. With his infectious high spirits and seemingly endless repertoire of quips and puns he was a great favorite of the ladies of the borough, both young and old, yet oddly enough he had remained a confirmed bachelor.

  On the other hand, Mr. Clarke senior, the elder brother, couldn't have been more different. A staunch traditionalist, he frowned upon his brother's exuberance, both in appearance and in manner, insisting on the somber, time-honored dress code: the old shop coat his forefathers had sported. He was painfully clean and neat; his clothes could have been ironed while he was wearing them, such was the crispness of his mushroom brown shop coat, white shirt, and black tie. His shoes were so beautifully polished, and his hair, cut short at the back and sides, was oiled flat with such a glistening sheen, that from behind one would have had a hard time telling which way up he was.

  The two brothers, within the shady green interior of the shop, were not unlike a caterpillar and a butterfly trapped within a shared cocoon. And with their constant bickering, the flippant joker and his straitlaced brother resembled a comedy team in constant rehearsal for a performance that would never take place.

  "Expecting a rush on my lovely gooseberries, are you?" Mr. Clarke junior said in a mock Welsh accent and smiled cheekily at Chester, who, still propped against the door, made no effort at a response, as if struck dumb by the whole situation. "Ah, the strong, silent type," Mr. Clarke junior whispered with a wink as he danced down the stepladder and whirled in a flourish to come face to face with Will.

  "It's young Master Burrows, is it not?" he said, his expression suddenly becoming serious. "I am so sorry to hear about your dear father. You've been in our thoughts and in our prayers," he continued, placing his right hand softly on his heart. "How is your mother bearing up? And that delightful sister of yours…?"

  "Fine, fine, both fine," Will said distractedly.

  "She's a regular here, you know. A valued customer."

  "Yes," Will blurted, a little too quickly, as he tried to pay attention to Mr. Clarke junior while still keeping an eye on the door against which Chester remained buttressed as if his life depended on it.

  "A highly valued customer," the invisible Mr. Clarke senior echoed from behind his counter, accompanied by the rustle of papers.

  Mr. Clarke junior nodded and smiled. "Indeedy, indeedy. Now, you boys just park your pretty selves there while I get a little something for you to take to your mother and sister." Before Will could utter a word, he had spun gracefully on his heel and practically tap-danced into the stockroom at the rear of the shop. Will took the opportunity to go over to the window to check on the whereabouts of their two pursuers. He recoiled with surprise.

  "They're still there!" he said.

  The two men were standing on the sidewalk, one directly in front of each window, staring in over the display tables of fruits and vegetables. It had now turned quite dark outside, and their faces glowed like ghostly white balloons under the illumination from the shop's interior. They were both still wearing their impenetrable glasses, and Will could make out their bizarre hats and the waxy shine of their angular coats with the unusual shoulder mantles. Their craggy, slanting faces and their clenched mouths looked uncompromising and brutal.

  Chester spoke in a strained, low voice: "Get them to call the police." He gestured with his head at the counter, where they could hear Mr. Clarke senior grumbling as he thumped so forcefully on a stapler that it sounded like he was using a jackhammer.

  Just then, Mr. Clarke junior waltzed back into the shop carrying a basket piled high with an impressive array of fruits, a large pink bow tied to its handle. He offered it to Will with both hands outstretched, as if he were about to break into an aria.

  "For your mother and sister and, of course, you, old chap. A little something from me and the old codger over there, as a token of our sympathy for your predicament."

  "Better a codger than an upstart," came the muffled voice of Mr. Clarke senior.

  Pointing at the windows, Will opened his mouth to explain about the mysterious men.

  "All clear," Chester said loudly.

  "What's that, dear boy?" Mr. Clarke junior asked, looking past Will at Chester, who was now standing in front of one of the windows and
peering up and down the street.

  "What's all clear?" Mr. Clarke senior sprung up like a deranged jack-in-the-box.

  "Papers!" Mr. Clarke junior ordered in the voice of an angry librarian, but his brother remained above the counter.

  "Uh… just some kids," Will lied. "We were being chased."

  "Boys will be boys!" Mr. Clarke junior giggled. "Now please do remember me to your dear sister, Miss Rebecca. You know, she really has such a good eye for quality produce. A gifted young lady."

  "I will." Will nodded and forced a smile. "And thanks for this, Mr. Clarke."

  "Oh, think nothing of it," he said.

  "We do hope that your father returns home soon," Mr. Clarke senior said dolefully. "You shouldn't worry; these things happen from time to time."

  "Well… it's like that Greggson boy… terrible thing, that," Mr. Clarke junior said with a knowing look and a sigh. "And then there was the Watkins family…" Will and Chester watched him as he seemed to focus on a point somewhere between the ranks of the carrots and the cucumbers. "Such nice people, too. No one's seen hide nor hair of them since they—"

  "It's not the same thing, not the same at all," Mr. Clarke senior interrupted his brother sharply, then coughed uneasily. "I don't think this is the time or place to bring that up, Junior. A little unsympathetic, do you not think, given the situation?"

  But "Junior" wasn't listening; he was in full flow now and not to be stopped. Crossing his arms and with his head tilted to one side, he took on the aura of one of the old biddies he habitually gossiped with. "Like the flippin' lost colony of Roanoke it was, when the police got there. Empty beds, the boys' uniforms all laid out for school the next day, but they were nowhere to be found, none of them. Mrs. W had ordered half a pound of our green beans that very morning, if I recall, and a couple of watermelons. Anyway, no sign of any of them anywhere?"

  "What… the watermelons?" Mr. Clarke senior asked in a deadpan voice.

  "No, the family, you silly sausage," Mr. Clarke junior said, rolling his eyes.

  In the silence that ensued, Will looked from Mr. Clarke junior to Mr. Clarke senior, who was staring daggers at his wistful sibling. He was beginning to feel as Alice must have when she'd stepped through the looking glass.

  "Ho-hum, better get on," proclaimed Mr. Clarke junior with a last lingering look of sympathy at Will, and he tiptoed back up his stepladder, singing, "Beetroot to me, mon petit chou…"

  Mr. Clarke senior had sunk out of sight once again and the sound of rattling papers resumed, accompanied by the whir of an old-fashioned adding machine. Will and Chester cautiously opened the shop door halfway and peeked nervously into the street.

  "Anything?" Chester asked.

  Will moved out onto the pavement in front of the shop.

  "Nothing," he replied. "No sign of them."

  "We should've called the police, you know."

  "And told them what?" Will said. "That we were chased by two weirdos in sunglasses and silly hats and then they just disappeared?"

  "Yes, exactly that," Chester said, irritated. "Who knows what they were after?" He suddenly looked up as the thought reoccurred to him. "What if they were the gang that took your dad?"

  "Forget it — we don't know that."

  "But the police…" Chester said.

  "Do you really want to go through all that hassle when we've got work to do?" Will interrupted him sharply, scanning Main Street

  up and down and feeling more at ease now that more people were around. At least they would be able to call for help if the two men turned up again. "The police would probably think we're just a couple of kids goofing around. It's not as if we've got any witnesses."

  "Maybe," Chester agreed grudgingly as they started toward the Burrowses' house. "There's no shortage of nuts around here," he said, looking back at the Clarke brothers' shop, "that's for sure."

  "It's safe now, anyway. They're gone, and if they do come back, we'll be ready," Will said confidently.

  Strangely enough, the incident had not deterred him in the slightest. As he thought about it, quite the opposite was true: It confirmed to him that his father had been onto something, and now he was on the right track. Although he didn't mention any of this to Chester, his resolve to continue with the tunnel and his investigations hardened even further.

  Will had begun to pick at the grapes in the garish basket, and the pink ribbon, now undone, flapped in the breeze behind him. Chester appeared to have gotten over his misgivings and was looking expectantly at the basket, his hand poised to help himself.

  "So do you want to bail? Or are you still going to help me?" Will quizzed him in a teasing voice, moving the basket tantalizingly out of his reach.

  "Oh, all right, then, hand me a banana," his friend replied with a smile.

  16

  "All this evidence points to a deliberate dismantling," Will said, squatting next to Chester on a pile of rubble in the cramped confines of the workface.

  They had now reclaimed about twenty feet of the tunnel, which had begun to dip down in a sharp decline, and found they were running critically short of timber. Will had hoped they would be able to salvage some of the original props and planking from the tunnel itself. What confounded them both was that very little of it was still there, and that much of the timber they did find was damaged beyond use. They had already stripped out every last piece they could from the other tunnel over at the Forty Pits, as well as removing the Stillson props, without bringing the whole excavation crashing down.

  Will patted the work face, looking at it with a frown. "I just don't get it," he said.

  "So what do you really think happened? That your dad pulled it in behind him?" Chester asked as he, too, looked at the plug of soil and solidly compacted rock that they had yet to remove.

  "Backfilled it? No, that's impossible. And even if somehow he had, where are the struts? We'd have found more of them. No, none of this makes any sense," Will said. Leaning forward, he picked up a handful of gravel. "Most of this is virgin infill. It's all been lugged here from somewhere else — precisely the same thing that happened at the Pits."

  "But why go to all the trouble of filling it in when you could simply collapse the whole thing?" Chester asked, still mystified.

  "Because then you'd have trenches opening up under people's houses or across their yards," Will replied despairingly.

  "Oh, right," Chester agreed.

  They were both exhausted. The last section had been particularly hard going, made up mostly of sizable chunks of rock, some of which even Chester found difficult to manhandle into the wheelbarrow by himself.

  "I just hope we haven't got far to go," Chester sighed. "It's really beginning to get to me."

  "Tell me about it." Will rested his head in his hands, staring. So they sat there in silence, deep in their own thoughts, and after a while Will spoke. "What was Dad thinking, doing all this and not telling us what he was up to? Me, especially," he said, with a look of sheer exasperation. "Why would he do that?"

  "He must have had a good reason," Chester offered.

  "But all the secrecy; keeping a secret journal. I don't understand it. We were never a family that kept things… important things… from each other like that. So why wouldn't he have told me what he was up to?"

  "Well, you had the Pits tunnel," Chester interjected.

  "Dad knew about that. But you're right. I never bothered to tell Mum, because she's just not interested. I mean, we weren't exactly a…" Will hesitated, searching for the right word. "…perfect family, but we all got along and everyone sort of knew what everyone else was up to. Now everything's so messed up."

  Chester rubbed some soil out of his ear. He looked at Will thoughtfully. "My mum thinks people shouldn't keep secrets from each other. She says they always have a way of coming out and causing nothing but trouble. She says a secret's just the same as a lie. That's what she tells my dad, anyway."

  "And now I'm doing exactly that to Mum and Rebecca," Will said, bow
ing his head.

  * * * * *

  After Chester had gone and Will finally emerged from the cellar, he made straight for the kitchen, as he always did. Rebecca was sitting at the kitchen table opening the mail. Will noticed right away that his father's hoard of empty coffee jars, which had cluttered up the table for months, had vanished.

  "What've you done with them?" he demanded, looking around the room. "With Dad's jars?"

  Rebecca studiously ignored him as she scrutinized the postmark on an envelope.

  "You threw them out, didn't you?" he said. "How could you do that?"

  She glanced up at him briefly, as if he were nothing more than a tiresome gnat that she couldn't quite be bothered to swat, and then continued with the mail.

  "I'm starving. Anything to eat?" he said, deciding it wasn't wise to ruffle her feathers by pursuing the matter, not so close to mealtime. As he passed her on the way to the fridge, he stopped to examine something lying to the side. "What's this?"

  It was a package neatly wrapped in brown paper.

  "It's addressed to Dad. I think we should open it," he said without a moment's hesitation, snatching up a dirty butter knife left on a plate by the sink. Cutting into the brown paper, he excitedly tore open the cardboard box inside, then ripped away a cocoon of bubble wrap to reveal a luminous sphere, glowing from its time in the darkness.

  He held it up before him, his eyes sparkling with both excitement and the waning light emanating from the sphere. It was the object he'd read about in his father's journal.

  Rebecca had stopped reading the telephone bill and had risen to her feet. She was looking at the sphere intently.

  "There's a letter in here as well," Will said, reaching into the ravaged cardboard box.

 
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