Tunnels 01 tunnels, p.5
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       Tunnels 01 - Tunnels, p.5

           Roderick Gordon
 

  "Can't be!"

  "What's that, Burrows?" Pineapple Joe asked. "Anything to report?"

  "I might be mistaken, but I could swear there's a bit of an updraft," Dr. Burrows said, pulling his head out of the gap. "Why that should be, I just don't know — unless the whole block was built with some form of ventilation system between each house. But I can't for the life of me imagine why it would have been. The most curious thing is that the duct" — he rolled over onto his back and shone his flashlight upward, above the hole — "appears to carry on up, just behind the normal chimney. I presume it also vents as part of the chimney stack, on the roof?"

  What Dr. Burrows did not tell them — did not dare tell them, because it would have appeared too outlandish — is that he had smelled that peculiar mustiness again: the same smell he had noticed on his collision with the man-in-a-hat the day before on Main Street

  .

  * * * * *

  Back in the tunnel, Will and Chester were finally making progress. They were digging out the soil below the sandstone when Will's pickax hit something solid.

  "Drat! Don't tell me the rock carries on down here, too!" he yelled, exasperated. Chester immediately dropped his wheelbarrow and came running in from the main chamber.

  "What's the matter, Will?" he asked, surprised at the outburst.

  "Blast! Blast! And blast!" Will shouted. He was shocked. He had never seen Will lose his cool this way before; he was like a boy possessed.

  Will increased his attack with the pickax, working at fever pitch as he struck wildly at the rock face. Chester was forced to take a step back to avoid his swings and the torrents of sil and stone he was throwing out behind him.

  Suddenly Will stopped and fell silent for a moment. Then, slinging aside his pickax, he sank to his knees to scrape frantically at something in front of him.

  "Well, look at that!"

  "Look at what?"

  "See for yourself," Will said breathlessly.

  Chester crawled in and saw what had excited his friend so much. Where Will had cleared away the soil there were several courses of a brick wall visible under the sandstone layer, and he'd already loosened some of the first bricks.

  "But what if it's a sewer or railway tunnel or something else like that? Are you sure we should be doing this?" Chester said anxiously. "It might have something to do with the water supply. I don't like this!"

  "Calm down, Chester, there's nothing on the maps around here. We're on the edge of the old town, right?"

  "Right," Chester said hesitantly, unsure of what his friend was getting at.

  "Well, this won't have been anything built in the last hundred to hundred and fifty years — so it's unlikely to be a train tunnel, even a forgotten one, way out here. I went through all the old maps with Dad. I suppose it might be a sewer, but if you look at the curvature of the brick as it meets the sandstone, then we're probably near the top of it. It could just be the cellar wall of an old house — or maybe some foundations, but I wonder how it came to be built under the sandstone? Very odd."

  Chester took a couple of steps backward and said nothing, so Will resumed his efforts for a few minutes and then stopped, aware that his friend was still hovering nervously behind him. Will turned and let out a resigned sigh.

  "Look, Chester, if it makes you happy, we'll stop work for today, and I'll check with my dad tonight. See what he thinks."

  "Yeah, I'd rather you did, Will. You know… in case."

  * * * * *

  Dr. Burrows said good-bye to Pineapple Joe and his daughter, promising to find out what he could about the house and its architecture from the local archives. He glanced at his watch and grimaced. He knew it wasn't right to leave the museum closed for so long, but he wanted to look at something before he went back.

  He walked around the square several times, examining the terraced houses on all four sides. The whole square had been built at the same time, and each house was identical. But what interested him was the idea that they might all have the mysterious ducts running through them. He crossed the road and went through the gate into the middle of the square, which had at its center a paved area surrounded by some borders of neglected rosebushes. Here he had a better view of the roofs, and he pointed with his finger as he tried to count exactly how many chimney pots there were on each one.

  "Just doesn't add up." He frowned. "Very peculiar indeed."

  He turned, left the square, and, making his way back to the museum, arrived just in time to close up for the day.

  6

  In the dead of night, Rebecca watched from an upstairs window as a shadowy figure loitered on the pavement in front of the Burrowses' house. The figure, its features obscured by a hoodie and a baseball cap, glanced furtively both ways along the street, behaving more like a fox than a human. Satisfied that it wasn't being observed, it descended on the garbage bags and, seizing hold of the bulkiest, ripped a hole in it and quickly began to rummage through the contents with both hands.

  "Do you really think I'm that stupid?" Rebecca whispered, her breath clouding the glass of her bedroom window. She wasn't the slightest bit concerned. Following warnings about identity theft in the Highfield area, she had been fastidiously destroying any official letters, credit card bills, or bank statements — in fact, anything containing the family's personal details.

  In his haste to find something, the man was tossing out trash from the sack. Empty cans, food packaging, and a series of bottles were being strewn across the front lawn. He snatched out a handful of papers and held them close to his face, rotating them in his fist as he scrutinized them under the dim streetlight.

  "Go on," she challenged the scavenger. "Do your worst!"

  Wiping the grease and old coffee grounds off one piece of paper with his hand, he twisted around so he could see it more clearly under the streetlight.

  Rebecca watched as he feverishly read the letter, then grimaced as he realized it was worthless. He tensed his arm in a gesture of disgust and threw it down.

  Rebecca had had enough. She'd been leaning on the windowsill but now she stood up, throwing back the curtains.

  The man caught the movement and flicked up his eyes. He saw her and froze, then, twisting around to check both ends of the street again, he slouched off, glancing back at Rebecca as if defying her to call the police.

  Rebecca clenched her small fists in fury, knowing she would be the one who'd have to clean up the mess in the morning. Yet another tedious chore to add to the list!

  She closed the curtains, pulled back from the window, and went out of her bedroom onto the landing. She stood, listening; there were several staccato snores. Rebecca turned on her slippered feet to face the door of the main bedroom, at once recognizing the familiar sound. Mrs. Burrows was asleep. In the lull that followed she listened even harder, until she was able to discern Dr. Burrows's long nasal breaths, then cocked her head toward Will's bedroom, listening again until she caught the rhythm of his faster, shallower breathing.

  "Yes," she whispered with an exultant toss of her head. Everyone was in a deep slumber. She felt instantly at ease. This was her time now, when she had the house to herself and could do what she wanted. A time of calm before they awoke and the chaos resumed again. She drew back her shoulders and stepped noiselessly to the doorway of Will's room to look in.

  Nothing moved. Like a shadow flitting across the room, she whisked over to the side of his bed. She stood there, gazing down at him. He was asleep on his back, his arms splayed untidily above his head. Under the faint moonlight filtering between the half-closed curtains she studied his face. She stepped closer until she was leaning over him.

  Well, look at him, not a care in the world, she thought and leaned even farther over the bed. As she did so, she noticed a faint smudge under his nose.

  Her eyes scanned the unconscious boy until they settled on his hands. "Mud!" They were covered in it. He hadn't bothered to wash before getting into bed and, even more revolting, must have been picking his
nose in his sleep.

  "Dirty dog," she hissed quietly. It was enough to disturb him, and he stretched his arms and flexed his fingers. Blissfully unaware of her presence, he made a low, contented noise deep in his throat, wriggling his body a little as he settled again.

  "You're a total waste of space," she whispered finally, then turned to where he'd thrown his filthy clothes on the floor. She gathered them up in her arms and left his room, going over to the wicker laundry basket that stood in a corner of the landing. Feeling inside all the pockets as she bundled the clothes into the basket, she came across a scrap of paper in Will's jeans, which she unfolded but could not read in the diminished light. Probably just trash, she thought, tucking it away in her bathrobe. As she withdrew her hand from her pocket, she caught a fingernail on the quilted material. She bit thoughtfully at the rough edge and strolled toward the main bedroom. Once inside, she made sure she stepped only on the precise areas where the floorboards under the old and worn shag carpet wouldn't creak and betray her presence.

  Just as she had watched Will, she now watched Mrs. and Dr. Burrows, as if she were trying to divine their thoughts. After several minutes, though, Rebecca had seen enough, and picked up Mrs. Burrows's empty mug from the bedside table, giving it an exploratory sniff. Ovaltine again, with a hint of brandy. With mug in hand, Rebecca tiptoed out of the room and went downstairs into the kitchen, navigating her way easily through the darkness. Placing the mug in the sink, she turned and left the kitchen to return to the hallway. Here she stopped again, her head inclined slightly to one side, her eyes closed, listening.

  So calm… and peaceful, she thought. It should always be this way. Like someone in a trance, she remained standing there, unmoving, until finally she drew in a deep breath through her nose, held it for a few seconds, then released it through her mouth.

  There was a muffled cough from upstairs. Rebecca glared resentfully in the direction of the staircase. Her moment had been broken, her thoughts disrupted.

  "I'm so tired of all this," she said bitterly.

  She padded over to the front door, unlatched the safety chain, and then made her way into the living room. The curtains were fully open, giving her a clear view of the back garden, which was dappled in shifting patches of silvery moonlight. Her eyes never once left the scene as she lowered herself into Mrs. Burrows's armchair, settling back as she continued to watch the garden and the hedge that divided it from the Common. And there she remained, relishing the solitude of the night and enshrouded in the chocolatey darkness, until the early hours. Watching.

  7

  The next day in the museum, Dr. Burrows was growing weary of his task of arranging a display of some old military buttons. He exhaled loudly with sheer frustration and, hearing a car horn on the road outside, happened to glance up.

  Out of the corner of his eye, he caught sight of a man walking on the opposite side of the street. He wore a flat cap, a long coat, and, although the day was distinctly overcast with only intermittent glimpses of the sun, a pair of dark glasses. It might easily have been the man he had bumped into outside the newsstand, but he couldn't be sure, because they all looked so similar.

  What was it that was so compelling about these people? Dr. Burrows felt in his bones that there was something special about them, something decidedly incongruous. It was as if they had stepped straight out of another time — perhaps from the Georgian era, given the style of their clothing. For him, this was on a par with finding a piece of living history, like those reports he'd read of Asian fishermen netting coelacanths, or maybe something even more tantalizing than that…

  Never a man to rein in his obsessions, Dr. Burrows was well and truly hooked. There had to be a rational explanation for the hated-man phenomenon, and he was determined to find out what it was.

  "Right," he decided on the spot, "now's as good a time as any."

  He put down the box of buttons and hurried through the museum to the main door, locking it behind him. As he stepped outside onto the street, he located the man up ahead and, keeping a respectable distance, he followed him down Main Street

  .

  Dr. Burrows kept pace with the man as he left Main Street

  , turned onto Disraeli Street

  , and then crossed the road to take the first right onto Gladstone Street

  , just past the old convent. He was about fifty feet behind him when the man drew to a sudden halt and turned to look directly at him.

  Dr. Burrows felt a tremor of fear as he saw the sky reflecting off the man's glasses and, sure the game was up, immediately spun around to face the opposite direction. At a loss to know what else to do, he squatted down and pretended to tie an imaginary shoelace on his slip-on shoe. Without getting up he peered furtively over his shoulder, but the man had completely vanished.

  His eyes frantically scanning the street, Dr. Burrows began to walk briskly, then broke into a run as he approached the spot where he had last sighted his quarry. Coming to it, he discovered that there was a narrow entrance between two small buildings. He was slightly surprised that in all the times he'd been this way before he'd never once noticed it. It had an arched opening and ran like a narrow tunnel until it passed beyond the back of the houses and then continued for a short distance as an uncovered alleyway. Dr. Burrows peered in, but the lack of daylight in the passage made it difficult to see very much. Beyond the stretch of darkness, he could make out something at the far end. It was a wall, cutting off the alleyway altogether. A dead end.

  Checking the street one last time, he shook his head in disbelief. He couldn't see anywhere else the man might have gone, vanishing as abruptly as he had, so he took a deep breath and started down the passage. He picked his way cautiously, wary that the man might by lying in wait in an unseen doorway. As his eyes adjusted to the shadows, he could see that there were soggy cardboard boxes and milk bottles, mostly broken, scattered across the cobblestones.

  He was relieved when he emerged back into the light again, and paused to survey they scene. The alleyway was formed by garden walls to the left and right and was blocked at its far end by the wall of a three-story factory. The old building had no windows until its uppermost story and couldn't possibly have provided the man with any means of escape.

  So where the blazes did he go? thought Dr. Burrows as he turned and looked back up the alleyway, to the street, where a car flashed by. To his right, the garden wall had a three-foot-high trellis running along it, which would have made it almost impossible for the man to climb over. The other wall had no such encumbrance, so Dr. Burrows went up to it and peered over. It was a garden of sorts, neglected and barren, peppered with faded plastic dishes containing dark green water.

  Dr. Burrows gazed helplessly into the private wasteland and was about to forget the whole thing when he had a sudden change of heart. He slung his briefcase over the wall and rather awkwardly clambered after it. The drop was greater than he'd expected, and he landed badly, his outstretched hand managing to flip over one of the dishes, splattering its contents up his arm and neck. He rose to his feet, swore silently, and brushed off as much as he could.

  "Blast! Blast! And blast!" he said through clenched teeth as he heard a door open behind him.

  "Hello? Who's there? What's going on?" came an apprehensive voice.

  Dr. Burrows wheeled around to face an old woman who was standing not five feet away, with three cats around her ankles observing him with feline indifference. The old woman's sight was apparently not good, judging from the way she was moving her head from side to side. She had wispy white hair and wore a floral housecoat. Dr. Burrows guessed she was at least in her eighties.

  "Er… Roger Burrows, pleased to meet you," Dr. Burrows said, not able to think of anything to explain why or how he had come to be there. The expression on the old woman's face was suddenly transformed.

  "Oh, Dr. Burrows, how very kind of you to drop by. What a nice surprise."

  Dr. Burrows was himself surprised and not a little confused. "Um
… not at all," he replied hesitantly. "My pleasure entirely."

  "Gets a bit lonely with just my pussycats for company. Would you care for some tea? The kettle's on the boil."

  Lost for words, Dr. Burrows simply nodded.

  The old woman turned, her entourage of cats darting before her into the kitchen. "Milk and sugar?"

  "Please," Dr. Burrows said, standing outside the kitchen door as she bustled around, getting a teacup down from a shelf.

  "I'm sorry to turn up unannounced like this," Dr. Burrows said, in an attempt to fill the silence. "This is all so very kind of you."

  "No, it's you who is very kind. I should be thanking you."

  "Really?" he stuttered, still frantically trying to figure out exactly who the old woman was.

  "Yes, for your very nice letter. Can't see as well as I used to, but Mr. Embers read it to me."

  Suddenly, it all fell into place, and Dr. Burrows sighed with relief, the fog of confusion blown away by the cool breeze of realization.

  "The glowing sphere! It is certainly an intriguing object, Mrs. Tantrumi."

  "Oh, good, dear."

  "Mr. Embers probably told you I need to get it checked."

  She held her head to one side, waiting expectantly for him to continue while she stirred the tea.

  "…well, I was rather hoping you could show me where you found it," he finished.

  "Oh, no, dear, wasn't me — it was the gas men. Shortbread or gingersnap?" she said, holding out a battered cookie tin.

  "Er… shortbread, please. You were saying the gas men found it?"

  "They did. Just inside the basement."

  "Down there?" Dr. Burrows asked, looking at an open door at the bottom of a short flight of steps. "Mind if I take a look?" he said, pocketing the shortbread as he began to negotiate the mossy brick steps.

  Once inside the doorway he could see that the basement was divided into two rooms. The first was empty, save for some dishes of extremely dark and dessicated cat food and loose rubble strewn across the floor. He crunched through to the second room, which lay beneath the front of the house. It was much the same as the first, except that the light was poorer in here and there was an old wardrobe with a broken mirror, tucked in a shadowy recess. He opened one of its doors and was immediately still.

 

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