Tunnels 01 tunnels, p.30
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       Tunnels 01 - Tunnels, p.30

           Roderick Gordon

  Another Styx promptly took over. "It is felt that the injustices brought upon you from specific of your family members, past and present, are unjust and unfortunate. Your honesty is not in question, and your reputation has not been tarnished. Unless you would like to speak for the record, you are unconditionally discharged."

  Mr. Jerome bowed dolefully and backed away from the table. Tam heard his boots scuffing on the flagstones but dared not turn to watch him leave. Instead his gaze flickered to the ceiling of the stone hall, then to the ancient wall hangings behind the Panoply, alighting on one depicting the Founding Fathers digging a perfectly round tunnel in the side of a verdant hill.

  He knew that all eyes now rested on him.

  Another Styx spoke. Tam immediately recognized the Crawfly's voice and was obliged to face his avowed enemy. He's loving every minute of this, Tam thought.

  "Macaulay. You are a different kettle of fish. Though not yet proven, we believe that you did aid and abet your nephews, Seth and Caleb Jerome, in their foiled attempt to liberate the Topsoiler Chester Rawls and then to escape to the Eternal City," said the Crawfly with evident relish.

  A second Styx continued. "The Panoply has recorded your plea of not guilty and your continuing protestations." With a single disapproving shake of his head he fell silent for a moment. "We have reviewed the evidence submitted in your defense, but at this time we are unable to reach a resolution. Accordingly we have decreed that the investigation will remain open, and that you are to be held on remand and your privileges revoked until further notice. Do you understand?"

  Tam nodded somberly.

  "We said, do you understand?" snapped the Styx child, stepping forward.

  An evil grin flicked across Rebecca's face as her icy glare drilled into Tam. There was a stir of hushed astonishment from the Colonists that the minor child had dared to speak, but not the smallest indication from the Styx that anything out of the ordinary had taken place.

  To say Tam was staggered would be a rank understatement. Was he really supposed to respond to this mere child? When he didn't answer right away, she repeated the question, her hard little voice as sharp as a whip crack.


  "I do, Tam muttered, "only too well."

  Of course, it wasn't a final ruling by any means, but it meant he would live in limbo until they decided either that he was cleared or… well… the alternative was too horrifying to think about.

  As a surly Colonist officer escorted him away, Tam couldn't help but notice the smarmy look of self-congratulation that passed between Rebecca and the Crawfly.

  Will, I'll be blowed! Tam thought. It's his daughter!

  * * * * *

  Aroused from his sleep by the booming sound of the television, Will sat up in the armchair with a start. He automatically groped for the remote control and clicked down the volume a couple of notches; it was only when he looked around that he fully realized where he was and remembered how he'd gotten there. He was home, and in a room he knew so well. Although he was surrounded by uncertainty about what he was going to do next, for the first time in a long time he felt that he had a measure of control over his destiny, and it felt good.

  He flexed his stiff limbs and took several deep breaths, coughing sharply. Despite the fact that he was ravenous, he felt a little better than he had the day before; the sleep had done him some good. He scratched, then tugged vaguely at his matted hair, its usual whiteness discolored with dirt. Clambering out of the chair, he stumbled over to the curtains and parted them a couple of inches to let the morning sun into the room. Real light. It was such a welcome sight that he pulled them wider.

  "Too bright!" Cal screeched repeatedly, burying his face in a cushion. Bartleby, roused by Cal's cries, flicked his eyes open. He immediately shied away from the glare, his long legs propelling him backward until he tumbled off the rear of the sofa. There he remained, hiding from the light and making noises somewhere between hisses and low meows.

  "Oh, yikes, I'm sorry," Will stuttered, kicking himself as he hurriedly yanked the curtains shut again. "I completely forgot."

  He helped his brother into a sitting position. He was moaning quietly behind the cushion, and Will could see that it was already soaked with tears. He wondered if Cal's and Bartleby's eyes would ever adjust to natural light. It was just one more problem Will had to contend with.

  "That was so stupid of me," he said helplessly. "I'll… um… I'll find some sunglasses for you."

  He began to search through a chest of drawers in his parents' room, only to find that it had been emptied. As he was checking the last drawer, he picked out a little bag of lavender languishing on the cheap Christmas gift wrap that his mother had used as a paper liner and held it up to catch the familiar scent. He closed his eyes as the smell conjured up a vivid picture of her. Wherever they'd sent her to recuperate, she'd be lording it over the other patients by now. He was willing to bet she'd commandeered the best chair in the television room and had cajoled someone into bringing her regular cups of tea. He smiled. In a way, she was probably happier now than she'd been for years. And maybe a little safer, too, if the Styx decided to pay a visit.

  For no reason in particular, as he rummaged through a bedside cupboard, he thought of his real mother. He wondered where she was right at that very moment, if indeed she was still alive at all. The only person in the long history of the Colony ever to evade the Styx and survive. He set his jaw with a determined look as he caught his reflection in a mirror. Well, now there were going to be two more Jeromes with that distinction.

  On a high shelf in his mother's closet he found what he was looking for, a pair of bendy plastic sunglasses she wore on the rare occasions she ventured out in the summer. He went back to Cal, who was squinting at the television in the darkened room, completely absorbed by the midmorning talk show on which the perma-tanned and obsequious host, oozing sincerity, was comforting the inconsolable mother of a teenage drug addict. Cal's eyes were a little red and still wet with tears, but he said nothing and indeed did not shift his gaze once from the screen as Will placed the glasses on his head, looping an elastic band around the arms to hold them firmly in place.

  "Better?" Will asked.

  "Much better, yes," Cal said, adjusting them. "But I'm really hungry," he added, rubbing his stomach. "And I'm so cold." He rattled his teeth together dramatically.

  "Showers first. That'll warm you up," Will said as he lifted his arm to sample the accumulated odor of many days' sweat. "And some clean clothes."

  "Showers?" Cal peered at him blankly through the sunglass lenses.

  Will managed to get the boiler fired up and went first, the hot water stinging his flesh with painful relief as the clouds of steam enveloped him in an ecstasy of forgetfulness. Then it was Cal's turn. Will showed his fascinated brother how the shower worked and left him to it. From the closet in his bedroom he dug out clean sets of clothes for himself and Cal, although his brother's needed a little adjustment to make them fit.

  "I'm a real Topsoiler now!" Cal announced, admiring the baggy jeans with rolled-up cuffs and the voluminous shirt with two sweaters on top of it.

  "Yeah, very trendsetting," Will said with a laugh.

  Bartleby was more problematic. It took much coaxing by Cal to even get the shivering animal as far as the bathroom door, and then they had to push him for the rear, like a recalcitrant donkey, to get him in. As if he knew what was in store in the steamy room, he leaped away and tried to hide under the sink.

  "Come on, Bart, you stinker, into the bath!" Cal ordered, finally running out of patience, and the cat grudgingly crept into the bath and looked at them with the most hangdog of expressions. He let out a warbled, low whine when the water first trickled over his sagging skin, and, deciding he'd had enough, his paws scrabbled on the plastic of the tub as he tried to get out. But with Will holding him down they managed to finish the task, although all three of them were completely drenched by the end of the exercise.
r />   Once out of the bath, Bartleby ricocheted around the bedrooms like a whirling dervish while Will took great pleasure in ransacking Rebecca's room. As he chucked all her incredibly neatly folded clothes onto the floor, he wondered how in the world he was going to find anything that was remotely suitable to dress a giant cat. But in the end some brown legwarmers were cut down to size for the animal's hind legs and an old purple sweater took care of his top half. Will found a pair of Bugs Bunny sunglasses in Rebecca's desk drawer, and these stayed in place on the cat's head once a yellow-and-black-stirped Tibetan hat was pulled firmly down.

  Bartleby looked quite bizarre in his new outfit. Out on the landing, the two brothers stood back to admire their handiwork, promptly falling into hysterics.

  "Who's a pretty boy, then?" Cal chuckled between outbursts of breathless laughter.

  "Better-looking than most around here!" Will said.

  "Don't you worry, Bart," Cal said soothingly, patting the peeved animal on the back. "Very… uh… striking," he managed to say before they both lapsed once again into uncontrolled laughter. Behind the pink-tinted lenses, the indignant Bartleby watched them sideways out of his large eyes.

  Fortunately, Rebecca, much as Will cursed her, had left the freezer in the utility room well stocked. He read the microwave instructions and heated up three beef dinners complete with dumplings and green beans. They wolfed these down in the kitchen, Bartleby standing with both paws on the table, his tongue rasping against the plastic dish as he hungrily devoured every last scrap of the meat. Cal thought it was just about the best thing he'd ever tasted, but claimed he was still hungry, so Will retrieved another three meals from the freezer. This time, they had pork dinners with roasted potatoes. They washed this down with a bottle of Coke, which sent Cal into fits of rapture.

  "So what happens next?" he said finally, tracing the rising bubbles on the side of his glass with a finger.

  "What's the mad rush? We'll be all right for a while," Will replied. He hoped that they would be able to hole up there, even if for just a few days, to give him time to figure out their next move.

  "The Styx know about this place — someone's already been here, and they'll be back. Don’t forget what Uncle Tam said. There's absolutely no way we can stay put."

  "I suppose so," Will agreed reluctantly, "and we could be spotted by the real estate agents if they show people around." He gazed in an unfocused way at the net curtains over the kitchen sink and spoke decisively. "But I still have to get Chester out."

  His brother looked aghast. "You don't mean go back? I can't go back, not now, Will. The Styx would do something terrible to me."

  Cal was not alone in his fear of returning underground. Will could barely contain his terror at the prospect of facing the Styx again. He felt as though he had pushed his luck as far as it would go, and to imagine he could carry out some audacious rescue attempt was sheer lunacy.

  On the other hand, what would they do if they remained Topsoil? Go on the run? When he really thought about it, it just wasn't realistic. Sooner or later they'd be apprehended by the police, and he and Cal would probably be separated and placed in foster care. Worse than that, he'd live the rest of his life under the shadow of Chester's death and with the knowledge that he could have joined his father in one of the greatest adventures of the century.

  "I don't want to die," Cal said in a faint voice. "Not like that." He pushed his glass away and looked pleadingly into Will's eyes.

  This wasn't getting any easier. Will couldn't cope with much more pressure. He shook his head. "What am I supposed to do? I can't just leave him there. I can't. I won't."

  * * * * *

  Later, while Cal and Bartleby lounged in front of the television watching children's programs and eating potato chips, Will couldn't resist going into the cellar. Just as he'd expected, when he swung the shelves out, there wasn’t a trace of the tunnel — they had even gone to the trouble of painting the newly laid brickwork to blend in with the rest of the wall. He knew that behind it would be the usual backfill of stone and soil. They'd done the job thoroughly. No point in wasting any further time there.

  Back in the kitchen, he balanced on a stool while he hunted through the jars on top of the cupboards. He found his mother's video money in a porcelain jar — there was about £20 in loose change.

  He was in the hallway on his way to the living room when he began to see tiny dots of light dancing before his eyes, and all over his body pinpricks of heat broke out. Then, without any warning, his legs went out from under him. He dropped the jar, which glanced off the edge of the hall table and shattered, scattering the change all over the floor. It was as if he were in slow motion as he collapsed, a fierce pain burning through his head until everything turned black and he lost consciousness.

  Cal and Bartleby came rushing out of the living room at the noise. "Will! What's the matter?" Cal cried, kneeling next to him.

  Will slowly came around, his temples throbbing painfully. "I don't know," he said feebly. "Just felt awful, all of a sudden." He started to cough, and had to hold his breath in order to stop.

  "You're burning up," Cal said, feeling his forehead.

  "Freezing…" Will could barely talk as his teeth rattled together. He made an effort to get up, but didn't have the strength.

  "Oh, no." Cal's face was creased with concern. "It could be something from the Eternal City. Plague!"

  Will was silent as his brother pulled him over to the bottom step of the staircase and propped his head on it. He grabbed the afghan and put it around him. After a while, Will directed Cal to the bathroom to get some aspirin. He swallowed them down with a sip of Coke and, after a brief rest, managed to get shakily to his feet with assistance from Cal.

  Will's eyes were feverish and unfocused, and his voice trembled. "I really think we should get help," he said, mopping the sweat from his brow.

  "Is there anywhere we can go?" Cal asked.

  Will sniffed, swallowed, and nodded, his head feeling as though it were about to burst. "There's only one place I can think of."

  * * * * *

  "Get yerself out here!" the Second Officer bawled into the cell, his head pushed so far forward that the tendons in his bull-like neck stood proud, like knotted lengths of rope.

  From the shadows came several sniffs as Chester did his best to control his terrified sobbing. Ever since he had been recaptured and brought back to the Hold, the Second Officer had been treating him brutally. The man had taken it upon himself to make Chester's life a living nightmare, withholding his meals and waking him up if he happened to nod off on the ledge by emptying a bucket of ice-cold water over his head or by screaming threats through the inspection hatch. All this probably had something to do with the thick bandage wound around the Second Officer's head — Will's blow with the shovel had knocked him out cold — and, what was worse, when he came to, the Styx had spent the best part of a day interrogating him over the accusation that he had been negligent in his duties. So to say that the Second Officer was now very bitter and vindictive would be putting it mildly.

  Chester, half starved and exhausted to the point of collapse, wasn't sure how much more of this treatment he could take. If life had been hard for him before the botched escape attempt, it was that much worse now.

  "Don't make me come in there and get you!" the Second Officer was yelling. Before he'd finished, Chester shuffled barefoot into the wan light of the corridor. Shielding his eyes with one hand, he lifted his head. It was streaked gray with ingrained dirt, and his shirt was torn.

  "Yes, sir," he mumbled subserviently.

  "The Styx want to see you. They've got something to tell you," the Second Officer said, his voice distorted with malice, and then he began to chortle. "Something that'll fix you good and proper." He was still laughing as, unbidden, Chester started down the corridor toward the main door to the Hold, the soles of his feet rasping sluggishly across the gritty stones.

  "Shift it!" the Second Officer snapped, thrusting
his bunch of keys into the small of Chester's back.

  "Ow," Chester complained in a pitiful voice.

  As they went through the main door, Chester had to cover his eyes altogether, he was now so unused to the light. He continued to shuffle along, heading on a course that would have taken him through to the front desk of the police station if the Second Officer hadn't stopped him.

  "And where do you think you're off to? You don't think you're going home, do you?" The man started to guffaw and then became deadly serious again. "No, you go right, into the corridor, you do."

  Chester, lowering his hands and trying to see through his scrunched-up eyes, made a slow quarter turn and then froze, rooted to the spot.

  "The Dark Light?" he asked fearfully, not daring to turn his face toward the Second Officer.

  "No, we're past all that now. This is where you get your comeuppance, you worthless little squit."

  They passed through a series of corridors, the Second Officer chivying Chester along with further jabs and shoves, chuckling to himself all the way. He quieted down as they rounded a corner and came in sight of an open doorway. From this an intense light streamed out, illuminating the whitewashed wall opposite.

  Although Chester's movements were languid and his expression blank, inwardly his fears were raging. Frantically he debated with himself whether he should make a run for it and bolt down the corridor ahead. He didn't have the slightest idea where it led, or how far he'd get, but it would, at the very least, put off facing whatever was waiting for him in that room. For a while, anyway.

  He slowed even further, his eyes hurting as he forced himself to look directly at the blaze of light flooding from the doorway. He was getting closer. He didn't know what was waiting inside — another of their exquisitely horrible tortures? Or maybe… maybe an executioner.

  His whole body stiffened, every muscle wanting to do anything but carry him into that dazzling light.

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