Tunnels 01 tunnels, p.14
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       Tunnels 01 - Tunnels, p.14

           Roderick Gordon
 

  "One sixty-seven," Will said in wonder as he spotted the digits above the knocker.

  "What is this place?" Chester was whispering as Will caught a faint flicker of light in a chink between the curtains. It shimmered, as if it came from a fire.

  "Shhh!" he said as he crept over and crouched down below the window, then slowly rose above the sill and peered with one eye through the small gap. His mouth gaped open in silent awe. He could see a fire burning in a hearth. Above this was a dark mantelpiece on which there were various glass ornaments. And as the light from the fire danced around the room, he could just make out some chairs and a sofa, and the walls, which were covered in framed pictures of varying sizes.

  "Come on, what's there?" Chester said nervously, continually looking back at the empty street as Will squashed his face against the dirty pane of glass.

  "You won't believe this!" Will replied, moving aside to let his friend see for himself. Chester eagerly pressed his nose against the window.

  "Wow! It's a real room!" he said, turning to look at Will, only to find him already on the move, working his way along the front of the house. He stopped as he reached the corner of the building.

  "Hey! Wait for me," Chester hissed, terrified he was going to be left behind.

  Between this building and the next one in the row, a short alley ran straight back to the tunnel wall. Will poked his head around the corner and, once he was satisfied it was clear, beckoned to Chester that they should move on to the next house.

  "This one's number is 166," Will said as he examined its front door, which was almost identical to the one on the first house. He tiptoed to the window but was unable to see anything at all through the dark panes.

  "What's there?" Chester asked.

  Will held a finger to his lips, then retraced his steps back to the front door. Looking at it closely, a thought occurred to him and his eyes narrowed. Recognizing the look, Chester reached out to try to stop him, spluttering, "Will, no!"

  But it was too late. Will had barely touched the door when it swung inward. They exchanged glances and then both inched slowly inside, twinges of excitement and fear simultaneously surging through them.

  The hallway was spacious and warm, and they both became aware of a potpourri of smells — cooking, fire smoke — and of human habitation. It was laid out just like any normal house; wide stairs started halfway down the corridor, with brass carpet rails at the base of each riser. Waxed wood paneling ran up to a handrail, above which was wallpaper of light and dark green stripes. Portraits in ornate, dull-gold-colored frames hung on the walls, depicting sturdy-looking people with huge shoulders and pale faces. Chester was peering at one of these when a terrible thought struck him.

  "They look just like the men who chased us," he said. "Oh, great, we're in a house that belongs to one of those nutters, aren't we? This is a freaking nuttytown!" he added as the awful realization hit him.

  "Listen!" Will hissed. Chester stood riveted to the spot as Will cocked an ear in the direction of the stairs, but there was nothing, only an oppressive silence.

  "I thought I heard… no…," he said and moved toward the open doorway to their left, then looked cautiously around the corner. "This is awesome!" He couldn't help himself — he had to go in. And by this time, Chester was also being swept along by the need to know more.

  A cheery fire crackled in the hearth. Around the walls were small pictures and silhouettes in brass and gilt frames. One in particular caught Will's eye: The Martineau House, he read on the inscription below. It was a small oil painting of what appeared to be a stately home surrounded by rolling grasslands.

  By the fireplace were chairs upholstered in a dark red material with a dull sheen. There was a dining table in one corner and in another a musical instrument that Will recognized as a harpsichord. In addition to the light from the fire the room was lit by two tennis-ball size spheres suspended from the ceiling in ornate pinchbeck cages. The whole thing brought to Will's mind a museum his father had taken him to with a display called "How We Used To Live." As he looked around, he reflected that this room wouldn't have been out of place there.

  Chester sidled up to the dining room table, where two plain white bone-china cups sat in their saucers.

  "There's something in these," he said with an expression of sheer surprise. "Looks like tea!"

  He hesitantly touched the side of one of the cups and looked up at Will, even more startled.

  "It's still warm. What's going on here? Where are all the people?"

  "Don't know," Will replied. "It's like… like…"

  They looked at each other with dumbfounded expressions.

  "I honestly don't know what it's like," Will admitted.

  "Let's just get out of here," Chester said, and they both bolted for the door. As they reached the sidewalk again, Chester collided with Will as he stopped dead.

  "What are we running for?" Will asked.

  "Uh… The… Well…," Chester blathered in confusion as he struggled to put his concerns into words. For a moment they lingered indecisively under the sublime radiance of a streetlight. Then Chester noticed with dismay that Will was staring intently at the road as it curved into the distance. "Come on, Will. Let's just go home." Chester shivered as he glanced back at the house and up at the windows, certain someone was there. "This place gives me the creeps."

  "No, Will replied, not even looking at his friend. "Let's follow the road for a bit. See where it goes. Then we can leave. I promise — all right?" he said, already striding off.

  Chester stood his ground for a moment, looking longingly across the road at the metal doorway through which they had first come. Then, with a groan of resignation, he followed Will along the line of houses. Many had lights in their windows, but as far as they could tell there were no signs of any occupants.

  As they came to the last house in the row, where the road curved off to the left, Will paused for a moment, deliberating whether to go on or call it a day. His voice squeaking with desperation, Chester started pleading that enough was enough and that they should turn back when they became aware of a sound behind them. It began like the rustling of leaves but quickly grew in intensity to a dry, rippling cacophony.

  "What the—" Will exclaimed.

  Shooting down from the roof, a flock of birds he size of sparrows dived down toward them like living tracer bullets. Will and Chester instinctively ducked, raising their arms to shield their faces as the pure white birds whirled around them in synchronized agitation.

  Will began to laugh. "Birds! It's only birds!" he said, swatting at the mischievous flock but never making contact. Chester lowered his arms and began to laugh, too, a little nervously, as the birds darted between them. Then, as quickly as they'd appeared, the birds swept upward and vanished around the bend in the tunnel. Will straightened up and staggered a few steps after them, then froze.

  "Shops!" he announced with a startled voice.

  "Huh?" Chester said.

  Sure enough, down one side of the street stretched a parade of bowfronted shops. Without speaking, they both began to walk toward them.

  "This is unreal," Chester muttered as they reached the first shop, with windows of handblown glass that distorted the wares inside like badly made lenses.

  "Jacobsen Cloths," Chester read from the shop sign, then peered at the rolls of material laid out in the eerie, green-lit interior.

  "A grocer's," Will said as they moved on.

  "And this one's some sort of hardware shop," Chester observed.

  Will gazed up at the arching roof of the cavern. "You know, by now we must nearly be under Main Street

  ."

  Peering into the windows and soaking up the strangeness of the ancient shops, they kept walking, driven by their careless curiosity, until they came to a place where the tunnel split into three. The center fork appeared to descend into the earth at a steep angle.

  "OK, that's it," Chester said resolutely. "We're leaving now. I'm not going to get lost
down here." All his instincts were screaming that they should turn back.

  "All right," Will agreed, "but—"

  He was just stepping off the sidewalk onto the cobbled road when there was an earsplitting crash of iron on stone. In a blinding flash, four white horses bore down on him, sparks spraying from their hooves, breathing hard and pulling behind them a sinister black coach. Will didn't have time to react, because at that very instant they were both yanked off their feet and hoisted into the air by the scruffs of their necks.

  A single man held them both, dangling helplessly, in his huge gnarled hands. "Interlopers!" the man shouted, his voice fierce and gravelly as he lifted the pair up to his face and inspected them with a look of repugnance. Will tried to bring his shovel up to beat him off, but it was wrested from his grasp.

  The man was wearing a ridiculously small helmet and a dark blue uniform of coarse material that rasped as he moved. Beside a row of dull buttons, Will caught sight of a five-pointed star of orange-gold material stitched onto the coat. Their massive, menacing captor was clearly some sort of policeman.

  "Help," Chester mouthed silently at his friend, his voice deserting him as they were buffeted about in the man's viselike grip.

  "We've been expecting you," the man rumbled.

  "What?" Will stared at him blankly.

  "Your father said you'd be joining us before long."

  "My father? Where's my father? What have you done with him? Put me down!" Will tried to swivel around, kicking out at the man.

  "No use wriggling." The man hoisted the struggling boy even higher in the air and sniffed at him. "Topsoilers. Disgusting!"

  Will sniffed back.

  "Don’t smell too good yourself."

  The man gave Will a look of withering scorn, then held up Chester and sniffed at him, too. In sheer desperation, Chester tried to head-butt the man. He jerked his face away, but not before Chester, with a wild swing of his arm, had swiped his helmet. It spun from his head, exposing his pale scalp, which was covered with short tufts of wispy white hair.

  The man shook Chester violently by the collar and then, with a horrible growl, knocked the boys' heads together. Although their hard hats protected them from any injury as they crashed noisily against each other, they were so shocked by his ferocity that they immediately abandoned any further thoughts of resistance.

  "Enough!" the man shouted, and he stunned boys heard a chorus of bitter laughter from behind him, becoming aware for the first time of the other men who were peering at them with pale, unsmiling eyes.

  "Think you can come down here and break into our houses?" the man growled as he swept them toward the center fork, where the road descended.

  "It's the clink for you two," snarled someone behind them.

  They were frog-marched unceremoniously through the streets, which were now filling with people emerging from various doorways and alleys to gawp at this unfortunate pair of strangers. Half dragged and half stumbling, each time they lost their footing the boys would be yanked savagely to their feet by the enormous officer. It was as if he had complete control over the situation.

  In all their confusion and panic, Will and Chester looked frantically around in the vain hope that they might find an opportunity for escape, or that someone would come to their rescue. But their faces drained of blood as this hope receded, and they realized the futility of their plight. They were being dragged deeper into the bowels of the earth, and there was absolutely nothing they could do about it.

  Before they knew it, they were heaved around a bend in the tunnel, and the space around them opened up. They were struck dumb by a dizzying confusion of bridges, aqueducts and raised walkways crisscrossed above a lattice of cobbled streets and lanes, all bordered with buildings.

  Dragged on at an impossible rate by the policeman, they were watched by huddled groups of people, their wide faces curious and yet impassive. But not all the faces were like those of their captor or the men who had pursued them up in Highfield, with their wan skin and washed-out eyes. If it hadn't been for their old-fashioned dress, some would have appeared quite normal and could easily have passed unnoticed in any English street

  .

  "Help, help!" Chester cried hopelessly as he halfheartedly resumed his efforts to extricate himself from the policeman's grip. But Will hardly noticed any of this. His attention had been seized by a tall, thin individual standing beside a lamppost, dark coat that reflected the light as if it was made from polished leather. He stood out strikingly from the squat people around him, his shoulders slightly bent over like a highly strung bow. His whole being emanated evil, and his dark eyes never left Will's, who felt a wave of dread wash over him.

  "I think we're in real trouble here, Chester," he said, unable to tear his gaze from the sinister man, whose thin lips were twisted into a sardonic smile.

  20

  Will and Chester stumbled and tripped as they were hauled up a small flight of stairs into a single-story building nestling between what Will took to be drab offices or factories. Once inside, the policeman pulled them to an abrupt halt and, spinning them around, roughly yanked their bags off their backs. Then he literally hurled the two boys at a slippery oak bench, its surface dripping here and there with polished indentations, as if years of wrongdoers had rubbed along its length. Will and Chester gasped as their backs slammed against the wall and the breath was knocked out of them.

  "Don't you move!" the policeman roared, positioning himself between them and the entrance. By craning his neck forward, Will could just see past the man and through the half-windowed doors into the street outside, where a mob had gathered. Many were jostling for a view, and a few started to shout angrily and wave their fists as they caught sight of Will. He quickly sat back and tried to catch Chester's eye, but his friend, frightened out of his wits, was staring fixedly at the floor in front of him.

  Will noticed a bulletin board next to the door, on which a large number of black-rimmed papers were pinned. Most of the writing was too small to decipher from where he sat, but he could just make out handwritten headings such as Order of Edict, followed by strings of numbers.

  The walls of the station were painted black from the floor up to a handrail, above which they were an off-white color, peeling in places and streaked with dirt. The ceiling itself was an unpleasant nicotine yellow with deep cracks running in every direction, like a road map of some unidentified country. On the wall directly above him was a picture of a forbidding looking building, with slits for windows and huge bars across its main entrance. Will could just make out the words Newgate Prison written under it.

  Across from the boys ran a long counter, on which the policeman had placed their backpacks and Will's shovel, and beyond that was an office of some sort, where three desks were surrounded by a forest of narrow filing cabinets. A number of smaller rooms led off this main room, and from one came the rapid tapping of what could have been a typewriter.

  Just as Will was looking into the far corner of the room, where a profusion of burnished brass pipes ran up the walls like the stems of an ancient vine, there was a screeching hiss that ended with a solid clunk. The noise was so sudden that Chester sat up and blinked like a nervous rabbit, stirred from his anxious torpor.

  Another policeman emerged from a side room and hurried over to the brass pipes. There he glanced at a panel of antiquated dials from which a cascade of twisted wires spiraled down to a wooden box. Then he opened a hatch in one of the pipes, prying out a bullet-shaped cylinder the size of a small rolling pin. Unscrewing a cap from one end of it, he extracted a scroll of paper that crackled as he straightened it out to read it.

  "Styx on their way," he said gruffly, striding over to the counter and opening up a large ledger, not once looking in the boys' direction. He also had an orange-gold star stitched onto his jacket, and although his appearance was much like that of the other officer, he was younger and his head was covered with a neatly cut stubble of white hair.

  "Chester," Will wh
ispered. When his friend didn't react, he stretched over to nudge him. In a flash, a truncheon lashed out, smacking sharply across his knuckles.

  "Desist!" the policeman next to them barked.

  "Ouch!" Will jumped up from the bench, his fists clenched. "You fat…," he shouted, his body trembling, trying to control himself. Chester reached out and grabbed hold of his arm.

  "Be quiet, Will!"

  Will angrily shook off Chester's hand and stared into the policeman's cold eyes. "I want to know why we're being held," he demanded.

  For a horrible moment they thought the policeman's face was going to explode, it turned such a livid red. But then his huge shoulders began to heave, and a low, grating laugh rumbled up, which grew louder and louder. Will threw a sidelong glance at Chester, who was eyeing the policeman with alarm.

  "ENOUGH!" the voice of the man behind the counter cracked like a whip as he looked up from the ledger, his gaze falling on the laughing policeman, who immediately fell silent. "YOU!" The man glowered at Will. "SIT DOWN!" His voice held such authority that Will didn't hesitate for a second, quickly taking his place next to Chester again. "I," the man continued, puffing out his barrel chest self-importantly, "am the First Officer. You are already acquainted with the Second Officer." He nodded in the direction of the policeman standing by them.

  The First Officer looked down at the roll of paper from the message tube. "You are hereby charged with unlawful entry and trespass into the Quarter under Statute Twelve, Subsection Two," he read in a monotone.

  "But…" Will began meekly.

  The First Officer ignored him and read on. "Furthermore, you did uninvited enter a property with the intent to pilfer, contrary to Statute Six, Subsection Six," he continued matter-of-factly. "Do you understand these charges?" he asked.

  Will and Chester exchanged confused looks, and Will was about to reply when the First Officer cut him off.

 

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