Tunnels 01 tunnels, p.22
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       Tunnels 01 - Tunnels, p.22

           Roderick Gordon
 

  As if to show their agreement, the assembled group raised their tankards and clanked them together with salutations of "Up yer cludgy!"

  And so it went, drink after drink, until about the fourth or fifth round — Will had lost count. Tam had just finished telling a convoluted and unfathomable joke about a flatulent policeman and a blind orb-juggler's daughter that Will could make neither head nor tail of, although all the others found it hilarious.

  Picking up his tankard and still chuckling, Tam suddenly peered into his drink and, with his thumb and forefinger, pulled something out of the froth. "I got the bloody slug again," he said as the others burst once more into fits of uncontrolled laughter.

  "You'll be married within the month if you don't eat it!" Imago roared.

  "In that case…!" Tam laughed and, to Will's amazement, placed the limp gray object on his tongue. He moved it around inside his mouth before chewing and then swallowing it, to shouts of applause form his friends.

  In the lull that followed, Will felt sufficiently emboldened with Dutch courage to speak up.

  "Tam — Uncle Tam — I need your help."

  "Anything, lad," Tam said, resting his hand on Will's shoulder. "You only have to ask."

  But where did he start? Where did he begin? He had so many concerns swirling through his befuddled mind… finding his father… and what about his sister… and his mother… but which mother? Through this haze, one pressing thought crystallized — one thing above all else, that he had to do.

  "I have to get Chester out," Will blurted.

  "Shhh!" Tam hissed. He glanced nervously around. They all drew together to encircle him in a secretive huddle.

  "Have you any idea what you're asking?" Tam said under his breath.

  Will looked at him blankly, not sure how to respond.

  "And where would you go? Back to Highfield? Think you'd ever be safe there again, with the Styx hunting you? You wouldn't last a week. Who'd protect you?"

  "I could go to the police," Will suggested. "They'd—"

  "You're not listening. They have people everywhere." Tam reiterated forcefully.

  "And not just in Highfield," Imago interjected in a low voice. "You can't trust anyone Topsoil, not the police… not anyone."

  Tam nodded in agreement. "You'd need to lose yourself somewhere they'll never think of looking for you. Do you know where you might go?"

  Will didn't know whether it was fatigue or the effect of the alcohol, but he was finding it hard to fight back the tears. "But I can't just do nothing. When I needed help to find my dad," he said hoarsely, his throat tightening with emotion, "the one person I could rely on was Chester, and now he's stuck in the Hold… because of me. I owe it to him."

  "Have you any idea what it's like to be a fugitive?" Tam asked. "To spend the rest of your years running from every shadow, without a single friend to help you because you're a danger to anyone you're around?"

  Will swallowed noisily as Tam's words sank in, aware that all eyes in their little group were on him.

  "If I were you, I'd forget about Chester," Tam said harshly.

  "I… just… can't," Will said in a strained voice, looking into his drink. "No…"

  "It's the way things are down here, Will… you'll get used to it," Tam said, shaking his head emphatically.

  The high spirits of only a few minutes earlier had completely evaporated, and now Cal's face and those of Tam's men, gathered closely around Will, were stern and unsympathetic. He didn't know if he'd put his foot in it and said totally the wrong thing, but he couldn't just leave it at that — his feelings were too strong. He lifted his head and looked Tam straight in the eye.

  "But why do you all stay down here?" he asked. "Why doesn't everyone just get out… escape?"

  "Because," Tam began slowly, "all said and done, this is home. It might not be much, but it's all most people know."

  "Our families are here," Joe Waites put in forcefully. "Do you think we could just take off and leave them? Have you any idea what would happen if we did?"

  "Reprisals," Imago said in a voice that was barely a croak. "The Styx would slaughter the lot them."

  "Rivers of blood," Tam whispered.

  Joe Waites pressed even closer to Will. "Do you really think we'd be happy living in a strange place where everything is so completely foreign to us? Where would we go? What would we do?" he gushed, trembling with agitation as he spoke. It was obvious he was extremely upset by Will's questions, only beginning to regain his composure when Tam laid a comforting hand on his shoulder.

  "We'd be out of place… out of time," Jesse Shingles said.

  Will could only nod, cowed by the sheer intensity of emotion he'd aroused in the group. He sighed shakily.

  "Well, whatever, I have to get Chester out. Even if I have to do it myself," he said.

  Tam regarded him for a moment and then shook his head. "Stubborn as a mule. Talk about like mother, like son," he said, a grin returning to his face. "D'you know, it's uncanny how much you sound like her. Once Sarah set her mind on something there was no budging her." He ruffled Will's hair with his large hand. "Stubborn as a bloody mule."

  Imago tapped Tam's arm. "It's him again."

  Relieved that he was no longer the center of attention, Will was a little slow to catch on, but when he did he observed that across the street a Styx was talking to a hefty man who had wiry white hair and long sideburns and wore a shiny brown coat with a grimy red neckerchief coiled around his stubby neck. As he watched, the Styx nodded, turned, and walked away.

  "That Styx has been dogging Tam for a long time now," Cal whispered to Will.

  "Who is he?" Will asked.

  "Nobody knows their names, but we call him the Crawfly, on account he can't so easily be shaken off. He's on a personal vendetta to bring down Uncle Tam."

  Will watched as the figure of the Crawfly dissolved into the shadows.

  "He's had it infor your family since your ma gave the White Necks the slip and went Topsoil," Imago said to Will and Cal.

  "And till my dying day I'll swear he did in my pa," Tam said, his voice flat and oddly lacking in any emotion. "He killed him, all right… that was no accident."

  Imago shook his head slowly. "That was a horrible thing," he agreed. "A horrible thing."

  "So what's he cooking up with that scum over there?" Tam said, frowning as he turned to Imago.

  "Who was he talking to?" Will asked, peering at the other man, who was now crossing the road toward the crowd outside the tavern.

  "Don't look at him… that's Heraldo Walsh. A cutthroat… nasty piece of work," Cal warned.

  "A burglar, lowest of the low," Tam growled.

  "But what's he doing talking to a Styx, then?" Will said, totally confused.

  "Wheels within wheels," Tam muttered. "The Styx are a devious bunch. A belt becomes a snake with them." He turned to Will. "Look, I may be able to help you with Chester, but you've got to promise me one thing," he whispered.

  "What's that?"

  "If you get caught, you'll never implicate Cal, me, or any of us. Our lives and our families are here and, like it or not, we have to stay in this place with the White Necks… the Styx. That's our lot. And I'll say it again: They'll never let it rest if you cross them… they will do everything they can to catch up with you—" Suddenly, Tam broke off.

  Will saw the alarm in Cal's eyes. He spun around. Heraldo Walsh was standing not five feet away. And behind him a throng of drunkards had parted fearfully to allow a phalanx of brutish-looking Colonists through. They were clearly Walsh's gang — Will saw the fiery hatred in their faces. His blood ran cold. Tam immediately stepped to Will's side.

  "What do you want, Walsh?" Tam said, his eyes narrowed and his fists clenched.

  "Ah, my old friend, Tamfoolery," Heraldo Walsh said with a vile, gappy grin. "I just wanted to see this Topsoiler for myself."

  Will wished the ground would open up and swallow him.

  "So you're the type of scum that chokes
our air channels and pollutes our houses with your foul sewage. My daughter died because of your kind." He took a step closer to Will, raising his hand threateningly, as if he was going to grab at the pertrified boy. "Come 'ere, you stinking filth!"

  Will cowered. His first impulse was to run, but he knew his uncle wasn't about to let anything happen to him.

  "That's far enough, Walsh." Tam took a step toward the man to block his approach.

  "You're fraternizing with the godless, Macaulay," Walsh yelled, his eyes never leaving Will's face.

  "And what do you know of God?" Tam retorted, stepping fully in front of Will to shield him. "Now, you drop it! He's family!"

  But Heraldo was like a dog with a bone — he wasn't about to let go. Behind him, his supporters were egging him on and cursing.

  "You call that family?" He thrust a dirt-stained finger at Will. "Sarah Jerome's mongrel?"

  At this, several of his men let out wild howls and whoops.

  "He's the filthy offspring of that traitorous woman who ran for the sun," Heraldo snapped.

  "That's it," Tam hissed through his clenched teeth. He slung the dregs of his beer at the man, hitting him square in the face, dousing his hair and sideburns with the watery gray fluid.

  "Nobody insults my family, Walsh. Step up to the scratch," Tam scowled.

  Heraldo Walsh's coterie began to chant, "Milling, milling, milling!" and very soon cheers filled the air as everyone out on the sidewalk joined in. Others came rushing out of the tavern door to see what all the commotion was about.

  "What's going on?" Will asked Cal, terrified out of his wits as the huge crowd hemmed them in. Right in the center of the closely packed, overexcited rabble, Tam stood resolutely in front of the dripping Heraldo Walsh, locked in an angry staring match.

  "A fistfight," Cal said.

  The pub owner, a stocky man in a blue apron, with a sweaty red face, pushed through the tavern doors and threaded his way through the mob until he reached the two men. He barged in between Tam and Heraldo Walsh and kneeled down to fix shackles to their ankles. As they both took a step back, Will saw that the shackles were connected by a length of rusty chain, so that the two fighters were bound together.

  Then the owner reached into his apron pocket and brought out a piece of chalk. He drew a line on the pavement halfway between them.

  "You know the rules." His voice boomed melodramatically, as much for the benefit of the crowd as for the two men. "Above the belt, no weapons, biting, or gouging. It stops on a KO or death.

  "Death?" Will whispered shakily to Cal, who nodded grimly.

  Then the pub owner ushered everyone back until a human boxing ring had been squared off. This wasn't an easy task, because people were jostling against one another as they vied for a view of the two men.

  "Step up to the mark," the man said loudly. Tam and Heraldo Walsh positioned themselves on either side of the chalk line. The pub owner held their arms to steady them. Then he released them with the shouted order: "Commence!" and quickly retreated.

  In an attempt to knock his opponent off balance, Walsh immediately swung his foot back and the length of chain — six feet or so long — snapped taut, yanking Tam's leg forward.

  But Tam was ready for the maneuver and used the forward momentum to his advantage. He leaped toward Walsh, a huge right fist flying at the shorter man's face. The blow glanced off Walsh's chin, drawing a gasp from the crowd. Tam continued with a fast combination of blows, but his opponent avoided them with apparent ease, ducking and diving like a demented rabbit, as the chain between them rattled noisily on the pavement amid the shouts and cries.

  "By Jove, he's quick, that one," Joe Waites observed.

  "But he don't have Tam's reach, do he?" Jesse Shingles countered.

  Then Heraldo Walsh, crouching low, shot up under Tam's guard and landed a blow on his jaw, a sharp uppercut that jarred Tam's head. Blood burst from his mouth, but he didn't hesitate in his retaliation, bringing his fist down squarely on the top of Walsh's skull.

  "The pile driver!" Joe said excitedly and then shouted, "Go on, Tam! Go on, you beauty!"

  Heraldo Walsh's knees buckled and he reeled backward, spitting with anger, and came back immediately with a frenzied salvo of punches, clipping Tam around the mouth. Tam moved back as far as the limits of the chain would allow, colliding with the crowd. As people stepped on those behind to give the two fighters more room, Walsh pursued him. Tam used the time to collect himself and reorganize his guard. As Walsh closed in, his fists swiping the air in front of him, Tam ducked down and exploded back into his opponent with a combination of crushing blows to his rib cage and stomach. The noise of the thudding wallops, like bales of hay being thrown on the ground, could be heard over the shouts and jeers of the spectators.

  "He's softening him up," Cal said gleefully.

  Sporadic skirmishes were breaking out among the mob as arguments raged between the supporters of the two fighters. From his vantage point, Will saw heads bobbing up and down, fists flailing, and tankards flying, beer going everywhere. He also noticed that money was changing hands as bets were feverishly taken — people were holding up one, two, or three fingers and swapping coins. The atmosphere was carnivalesque.

  Suddenly, the crowd let out a deep "Oooh!" as, without warning, Heraldo Walsh landed a mighty right hook on Tam's nose. There was a dramatic lull in the shouting as the crowd watched Tam drop to one knee, the chain snapping tightly between them.

  "That's not good," Imago said worriedly.

  "Come on, Tam!" Cal shouted for all he was worth. "Macaulay, Macaulay, Macaulay…," he yelled, and Will joined in.

  Tam stayed down. Cal and Will could see blood running from his face and dripping onto the cobblestones of the street. Then Tam looked across at them and winked slyly.

  "The old dog!" Imago said under his breath. "Here it comes."

  Sure enough, as Heraldo Walsh stood over him, Tam rose up with all the grace and speed of a leaping jaguar, throwing a fearful uppercut that smashed into Walsh's jaw, forcing his teeth together in a bloodcurdling crunch. Heraldo Walsh staggered back, and Tam was on him, pounding him with deadly precision, striking the face of the smaller man so rapidly and with such force that he had no time to mount any form of defense.

  Something covered with spittle and blood shot from Heraldo Walsh's mouth and landed on the cobblestones. With a shock Will saw it was a large part of a shattered tooth. Hands reached into the ring in an attempt to snatch it away. A man in a moth-eaten trilby was the fastest off the mark, whisking it away and then vanishing into the throng behind him.

  "Souvenir hunters," Cal said. "Ghouls!"

  Will looked up just as Tam closed on his opponent, who was now being held up by some of his followers, exhausted and gasping for breath. Spitting out blood, his left eye swollen shut, Heraldo Walsh was pushed forward just in time to see Tam's fist as he landed a final, crushing blow.

  The man's head snapped back as he fell against the crowd, which this time parted and watched him as he danced a slow, drunken, bent-leg jig for a few agonizing moments. Then he simply folded to the ground like a sodden paper doll, and the crowd fell silent.

  Tam was bent forward, his raw knuckles resting on his knees as he tried to catch his breath. The pub owner emerged from the throng and nudged Heraldo Walsh's head with his boot. He didn't move.

  "Tam Macaulay!" the owner yelled out to the silent mob, which suddenly erupted with a roar that filled the cavern and must have rattled the windows on the other side of the Rookeries.

  Tam's shackle was removed, and his friends ran over to him and helped him to the bench, where he sat down heavily, feeling his jaw as the two boys took their places on either side of him.

  "Little runt was faster than I thought," he said, looking down at his bloodied knuckles as he flexed them painfully. He was handed a full tankard by someone who slapped him on the back and then disappeared into the tavern.

  "The Crawfly's disappointed," Jesse said as they all turne
d to see the Styx at the end of the street, his back to them as he stolled away, drumming a pair of peculiar eyeglasses on his thigh as he went.

  "But he got what he wanted," Tam said despondently. "The word will go around that I've been in another brawl."

  "Don't matter," Jesse Shingles said. "You were justified. Everyone knows it was Walsh who started it."

  Tam looked at the sorry, limp figure of Heraldo Walsh, left where he'd dropped. Not one of his cronies had come forward to move him off the street.

  "One thing's for sure — he'll feel like a Coprolite's dinner when he wakes up," Imago chortled as a barman threw a bucket of water over the poleaxed figure and then returned inside the tavern, laughing as he went.

  Tam nodded thoughtfully and took a huge mouthful of his drink, wiping his bruised lips with his forearm.

  "That's if he wakes up at all," he said quietly.

  25

  Rebecca's room was filled with the heavy rumble of Monday morning traffic, car horns hooting impatiently from the streets thirteen floors below. A slight breeze ruffled the curtains. She wrinkled her nose distastefully as she smelled the stale stench of cigarettes from Auntie Jean's nonstop smoking the night before. Although the door to her bedroom was firmly shut, the smoke nosed its way into every nook and cranny, like an insidious yellow fog searching out new corners to taint.

  She got up, slipped on her bathrobe, and made her bed as she trilled the first couple of lines of "You Are My Sunshine." Lapsing into vague la-las for the rest of the song, she carefully arranged a black dress and a white shirt on the top of the bedspread.

  She went over to the door and, placing her hand on the handle, stopped completely still, as if she had been struck by a thought. She turned slowly and retraced her steps to her bed. Her eyes alighted on the pair of little silver-framed photographs on the table beside it.

  Taking them in her hands she sat on her bed, looking between the two. In one, there was a slightly out-of-focus photograph showing Will leaning on a shovel. In the other, a youthful Dr. and Mrs. Burrows sat on stripy deck chairs on an unidentified beach. In the picture, Mrs. Burrows was staring at an enormous ice cream, while Dr. Burrows appeared to be trying to swat a fly with a blurred hand.

 
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