Tunnels 01 tunnels, p.17
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       Tunnels 01 - Tunnels, p.17
 

           Roderick Gordon

  The police turned up at precisely 7:00 a.m.. After that, events took on a life of their own. The house was filled with uniformed officers searching every room, poking around every closet and chest of drawers. Wearing rubber gloves, they began in Will's room and worked through the rest of the house, ending in the cellar, but apparently found nothing much of interest. She was almost amused when she saw they were retrieving articles of Will's clothing from the laundry basket on the landing and meticulously sealing each item in its own polyethylene bag before carrying it outside. She wondered what his dirty tighty whities could possibly tell them.

  At first, Rebecca busied herself by straightening up the mess the searchers had left behind, using the activity as an excuse to move around the house and see if she could glean anything from the various conversations that were taking place. Then, as no one seemed to be taking the slightest bit of notice of her, she dropped the pretense of tidying and just strolled around wherever she wanted, spending most of her time in the hallway outside the living room, where the chief inspector and a female detective were interviewing Mrs. Burrows. From what Rebecca could catch, she seemed to be detached and disturbed by turns and wasn't able to shed any light at all on Will's current whereabouts.

  The searchers eventually decamped to the front of the house, where they stood around smoking and laughing among themselves. Shortly afterward, the chief inspector and the female detective emerged from the living room, and Rebecca followed them to the front door. As the chief inspector walked down the path to the row of parked squad cars, she couldn't help but overhear his words.

  "That one's a few volts short of a full charge," he said to his colleague.

  "Very sad," the female detective said.

  "You know…," the chief inspector said, pausing to glance back at the house, "…to lose one family member is unfortunate…" His colleague had nodded.

  "…but to lose two is downright iffy," the chief inspector continued. "Very suspicious, in my book."

  The female detective nodded again, a grim smile on her face.

  "We'd better do a sweep of the Common, just to be sure," Rebecca heard him say before he was finally out of earshot.

  * * * * *

  The next day the police had sent a car for them, and Mrs. Burrows was interviewed for several hours, while Rebecca was asked to wait in another room with a woman from Social Services.

  * * * * *

  Now, three days later, Rebecca's mind was running over the chain of events again. Closing her eyes, she recalled the deadpan faces down at the police station and the exchanges she'd overheard.

  "This won't do," she said, glancing at her watch and seeing the time. She got up from her bed, unwound the towel from her head, and dressed quickly.

  * * * * *

  Downstairs, Mrs. Burrows was ensconced in her armchair, curled up fully clothed under the afghan that was tucked around her like a drab tartan cocoon. The only light in the room came from a muted public television program, the cool blue light pulsing intermittently and causing the shadows to jump and jerk, lending a sort of animation to the furniture and objects in the room. She was sleeping deeply when a noise in the room brought her awake: a deep murmur, like a strong wind combing through the branches of the trees in the garden outside.

  She opened her eyes a fraction. In the far corner of the room, by the half-opened curtains of the French windows, she could make out a large, shadowy form. For a moment she wondered if she was dreaming, as the shadow shifted and changed in the light cast by the television. She strained to make out just what was there. She wondered if it could be an intruder. What should she do? Pretend to be asleep? Or lie quite still so the intruder wouldn't bother her?

  She held her breath, trying to control her rising panic. The seconds felt like hours as the shape remained stationary. She began to think that maybe it was just an innocent shadow after all. A trick of the light and an overactive imagination. She let the air out of her lungs, opening her eyes fully.

  All of a sudden there was a snuffling sound and, to her horror, the shadow split into two distinct ghostlike blurs and closed in on her with blinding speed. As her senses reeled in shock and terror, a calm and collected voice in her head told her with absolute conviction, They are not ghosts.

  In a flash, the figures were upon her. She tried to scream, but no sound came out. Rough material brushed against her face as she smelled a peculiar mustiness, something like mildewed clothes. Then a powerful hand struck her, and she curled up in pain, winded and struggling for air, until, like a newborn baby, she caught her breath and let out an unholy shriek.

  She was powerless to resist as she was scooped out of her chair and borne aloft into the hallway. Now, howling like a banshee, bucking and straining, she glimpsed another figure looming from the doorway of the cellar, and a huge damp hand was clapped over her mouth, stifling her screams.

  Who were they? What were they after? Then a terrible thought sprung to mind. Her precious TV and video recorders! That was it! That's what they'd come for! The sheer injustice of it all. It was just too much to take, on top of everything else she'd had to put up with. Mrs. Burrows saw red.

  Finding energy from nowhere, she summoned the superhuman strength of the desperate. She wrestled one of her legs free and instantly kicked out. This caused a flurry of activity as her assailants tried to seize it, but she kicked out again and again as she twisted around. One of the faces of her attackers appeared within reach; she saw her chance and lunged forward, biting down as hard as she could. She found that she had it by its nose, and she shook her head like a terrier with a rat.

  There was a bloodcurdling wail, and its hold on her relaxed for a moment. That was enough for Mrs. Burrows. As the figures lost their grip on her and fell backward against one another, she found the ground with her feet and swung her arms behind her like a downhill skier. With a yell, she hurtled away from them and into the kitchen, leaving them grasping only the blanket that had been wrapped around her, like the discarded tail of a fleeing lizard.

  In the blink of an eye, Mrs. Burrows was back. She swooped into the midst of the three hulking forms. Utter chaos ensued.

  Rebecca, from her vantage point at the top of the stairs, was perfectly placed to watch as it all unfolded. In the half-light of the hallway below, something metallic flashed back and forth and from side to side, and she was a wild face. Mrs. Burrows's face. Rebecca realized that she was wielding a frying pan, swinging it left and right like a cutlass. It was the new one with the extra-wide base and the special non-stick surface.

  Time and time again the shadowy forms renewed their attack on her, but Mrs. Burrows stood her ground, repelling them with multiple blows, the pan resounding satisfyingly as it connected with a skull here or an elbow there. In all the confusion, Rebecca could see the streaks of movement as the salvo of blows continued at an incredible rate, boinging away to a chorus of grunts and groans.

  "DEATH!" screamed Mrs. Burrows. "DIE, DIE!"

  One of the shadowy figures reached out in an attempt to grab Mrs. Burrows's pan arm as it wheeled around in a figure eight, only to be walloped by a tremendous bone-shattering swipe. He let out a deep howl like a wounded dog and staggered back, the others falling back with him. Then, as one, they turned on their heels, and the three of them scuttled out through the open front door. They moved with startling speed, like cockroaches caught in the light, and were gone.

  In the stillness that followed, Rebecca crept down the stairs and flicked on the hall light. Mrs. Burrows, her bedraggled hair hanging like limp horns in dark wisps across her white face, immediately shifted her maniacal gaze to Rebecca.

  "Mum," Rebecca said softly.

  Mrs. Burrows raised the pan above her head and lurched toward her. The feral look of wild-eyed fury on her face made Rebecca take a step back, thinking she was about to turn on her.

  "Mum, Mum, it's me, it's all right, they're gone… they're all gone now!"

  A look of self-satisfaction spread across Mrs. Burr
ows's face as she checked herself and nodded slowly, appearing to recognize her daughter.

  "It's all right, Mum, really." Rebecca tried to pacify her. She ventured closer to the rapidly panting woman and gently eased the frying pan from her grip. Mrs. Burrows didn't put up any resistance.

  Rebecca sighed with relief and, looking around, noticed some dark spatters on the hall carpet. It could have been mud or — she looked closer and frowned — blood.

  "If they bleed," Mrs. Burrows intoned, following Rebecca's gaze, "I can kill them." She drew her lips back, revealing teeth as she let out a low growl, then started to laugh horribly, an unnatural, grating cackle.

  "How about a nice cup of tea?" Rebecca asked, forcing a smile as Mrs. Burrows quieted down again. Putting her arm around Mrs. Burrows's waist, she steered her in the direction of the living room.

  22

  Will was rudely awoken by the cell door crashing back and the First Officer hauling him to his feet. Still thick with sleep, he was bundled out of the Hold, through the reception area of the station, out of the main entrance, and onto the top of the stone stairs.

  The officer let go of him, and he tottered down a couple of steps until he found his footing. There he stood, groggy and more than a little disoriented. He heard a thump next to him as his backpack landed by his feet, and without a word the officer turned his back and went into the station.

  It was a strange feeling, standing there bathed in the glow of the streetlights after being confined in that gloomy cell for so long. There was a slight breeze on his face — it was damp and muggy but, all the same, it was a relief after the airlessness of the Hold.

  What happens now? he thought scratching his neck under the collar of the coarse shirt he'd been given by one of the officers. His mind still befuddled, he started to yawn, but stifled it as he heard a noise: A restless horse brayed and stamped a hoof against the damp cobbles. Will immediately looked up and saw a dark carriage a little way down on the other side of the road, to which two pure white horses were hitched. At the front, a coachman sat holding the reins. The carriage door swung open, and Cal jumped out and crossed the street toward him.

  "What's this?" Will asked suspiciously, backing up a step as Cal approached.

  "We're taking you home," Cal replied.

  "Home? What do you mean, home? With you? I'm not going anywhere without Chester!" he said resolutely.

  "Shhh, don't. Listen!" Cal now stood close to him and spoke with urgency. "They're watching us." He inclined his head down the street, his eyes never leaving Will's.

  On the corner was a sole figure, dark as a disembodied shadow, standing stock-still. Will could just make out the white collar.

  "I'm not leaving without Chester," Will hissed.

  "What do you think will happen to him if you don't come with us? Think about it."

  "But—"

  "They can be easy on him or not. It's up to you." Cal looked pleadingly into Will's eyes.

  Will glanced back at the station one last time, then sighed and shook his head. "All right."

  Cal smiled and, picking up Will's pack for him, led the way over to the waiting carriage. He held the door open for Will, who followed grudgingly, his hands in his pockets and his head down. He didn't like this at all.

  As the carriage pulled away, Will studied the austere interior. It certainly wasn't built for comfort. The seats, like the side panels, were made of a hard, black-lacquered wood, and the whole thing smelled of varnish with a faint hint of bleach, somewhat reminiscent of a gymnasium on the first day of school. Still, anything was better than the cell in which he'd been locked up for so many days with Chester. Will felt a sudden pang as he thought of his friend, still incarcerated and now alone in the Hold. He wondered if Chester had even been told that he'd been whisked away, and he swore to himself that he'd find a way to get his friend out of there if it was the last thing he did.

  He slumped back dejectedly in his seat and put his feet up on the opposite bench, then pulled back the leathery curtain and stared through the open window of the carriage. As the coach rattled through the cavernous, deserted streets, bleak houses and unlit shopfronts passed with monotonous regularity. Copying Will, Cal also settled back and rested his feet on the seat in front of him, occasionally giving Will sidelong glances and smiling contentedly to himself.

  Both boys remained silent, lost in their own thoughts, but it wasn't long before Will's natural inquisitiveness began to revive slightly. He made a concerted effort to take in the murky sights passing him by, but after a short while his eyelids grew heavier as his extreme weariness and the seemingly endless underworld got the better of him. Finally, lulled by the rhythmic beat of the horses' hooves, he nodded off, occasionally waking with a start when the carriage's buffeting roused him. With a somewhat startled expression, he would look around self-consciously, much to Cal's amusement, and then his head would droop and he'd succumb to his fatigue again.

  He didn't know if he'd been asleep for minutes or even hours when the driver cracked his whip, waking him again. The carriage surged forward, and the lampposts flicked past the window at less regular intervals. Will assumed they must be reaching the outskirts of the town. Wider areas opened up between the buildings, carpeted by dark green, almost black, beds of lichens or something similar. Then came strips of land at either side of the road, which were divided into plots by rickety-looking fences and contained beds of what appeared to be some sort of large fungi.

  At one point their speed dropped as they crossed a small bridge spanning an inky-looking canal. Will stared down into the slow and torpid water, flowing like crude oil, and for some reason it filled him with an inexplicable dread.

  He had just settled back into his seat and was beginning to doze off again when the road suddenly dipped down a steep incline and the carriage veered left. Then, as the road leveled out once more, the driver shouted "Whoa!" and the horses slowed to a trot.

  Will was wide awake now and stuck his head out the window to see what was going on. There was a huge metal gate blocking the way, and to the side of this a group of men huddled around a brazier as they warmed their hands. Standing apart from them in the middle of the road, a hooded figure held a lamp high and was waving it from side to side as a signal for the coachman to stop. As the carriage ground to a halt, to Will's horror he spotted the instantly recognizable figure of a Styx emerging from the shadows. Will quickly yanked the curtain shut and ducked back into the carriage. He looked questioningly at Cal.

  "It's the Skull Gate. It's the main portal to the Colony," Cal explained in a reassuring tone.

  "I thought we were already in the Colony."

  "No," Cal replied incredulously, "that was only the Quarter. It's sort of… like an outpost… our frontier town."

  So there's more beyond this?"

  "More? There's miles of it!"

  Will was speechless. He looked fearfully at the door as the clipped sound of boot heels on cobblestones drew nearer. Cal grabbed his arm. "Don't worry, they check everyone who goes through. Just say nothing. If there's a problem, I'll do all the talking."

  At that very moment, the door on Will's side was pulled open and the Styx shone a brass lamp into the interior. He played the beam across their faces, then took a step back and shone it up at the coachman, who handed him a piece of paper. He read it with a cursory glance. Apparently satisfied, he returned to the boys once more, directed the dazzling light straight into Will's eyes, and, with a contemptuous sneer, slammed the door shut. He handed the note back to the driver, signaled to the gateman, turned on his heel, and walked away.

  Hearing a loud clanking, Will warily lifted the hem of the curtain and peered out again. As the guard waved them on, the light from his lantern revealed that the gate was in fact a portcullis. Will watched as it rose jerkily into a structure that made him blink with astonishment. Carved from a lighter stone and jutting from the wall above the portcullis, it was an immense toothless skull.

  "That's pretty cree
py," Will muttered under his breath.

  "It's meant to be. It's a warning," Cal replied indifferently as the coachman lashed his whip and the carriage lurched through the mouth of the fearsome apparition and into the cavern beyond.

  Leaning out the window, Will watched the portcullis shuddering down behind them again until the curve of the tunnel hid it from sight. As the horse picked up speed, the carriage turned a corner and raced down a steep incline into a giant tunnel hewn out of the dark red sandstone. It was completely devoid of buildings and houses. As the tunnel continued to descend, the air began to change — it began to smell of smoke — and for a moment the ever-present background hum grew in intensity until it rattled the very fabric of the carriage itself.

  They made a final sharp turn, and the humming lessened and the air grew cleaner again. Cal joined Will at the window as a massive space yawned before them. On either side of the road stood rows of buildings, a complex forest of brick ducts running over the cavern walls above them like bloated varicose veins. In the distance, dark stacks vented cold blue flames and streamed vertical plumes of smoke, which, largely undisturbed by air currents, rose to the roof of the cavern. Here the smoke accumulated, rippling slowly and resembling a gentle swell on the surface of an inverted brown ocean.

  "This is the Colony, Will," said Cal, his face next to Will's at the narrow window. "This is…"

  Will just stared in wonder, hardly daring to breathe.

  "…home."

  23

  Around the same time that Will and Cal were arriving at the Jerome house, Rebecca was standing patiently beside a lady from Family Welfare on the thirteenth floor of Mandela Heights, a dreary, rund-down apartment building on the seamier side of Wandsworth. The social worker was ringing the bell of number 65 for the third time without getting a reply, while Rebecca looked around her at the dirty floor. With a low, remorseful moan, the wind was blowing through the broken windows of the stairwell and flapping the partially filled trash bags heaped in one corner.

 
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