Tunnels 01 tunnels, p.6
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       Tunnels 01 - Tunnels, p.6

           Roderick Gordon
 

  He sniffed several times, recognizing the same musty odor he had smelled on the man in the street and more recently in the duct at Penny Hanson's house. As his eyes became used to the darkness, he could see that inside the wardrobe were several overcoats — black, as far as he could tell — and an assortment of flat caps and other headwear stacked in a compartment to one side.

  Beneath the hat compartment, he found a small drawer, which he slid open. Inside were five or six pairs of glasses. Taking one of these and pulling an overcoat from its hanger, he made his way back out into the garden.

  "Mrs. Tantrumi," he called from the bottom of the steps. She waddled to the kitchen door. "Did you know there's quite a few things in a wardrobe down here?"

  "Are there?"

  "Yes, some coats and sunglasses. Do they belong to you?"

  "No, hardly ever go down there myself. The ground's too uneven. Would you bring them closer so I can see?"

  He went to the kitchen door, and she reached out and ran her fingers over the material of the overcoat as if she were stroking the head of an unfamiliar cat. Heavy and waxy to the touch, the coat felt strange to her. The cut was old-fashioned, with a shoulder cape of heavier material.

  "I can't say I've ever seen this before. My husband, God rest his soul, may have left it down there," she said dismissively and returned to the kitchen.

  Dr. Burrows examined the dark glasses. They consisted of two pieces of thick and absolutely flat, almost opaque, glass, similar to welder's goggles, with curious spring mechanisms on the arms on either side — evidently to keep them snug against the wearer's head. He was puzzled. Why would the strange people keep their belongings in a forgotten wardrobe in an empty basement?

  "Does anyone else come here, Mrs. Tantrumi?" Dr. Burrows said to her as she started to pour the tea with a very shaky hand.

  There was a lull in the rattling as she looked confused. "I really don't know what you mean," she said, as if Dr. Burrows was suggesting she had been doing something improper.

  "It's just that I've seen some rather odd characters around this part of town — always wearing big coats and sunglasses like these…," Dr. Burrows trailed off, because the old woman was looking so anxious.

  "Oh, I hope they aren't those criminal types one hears about. I don't feel safe here anymore—"

  "So you haven't seen any people in coats like these — men with white hair?" Dr. Burrows interrupted.

  "No, dear, can't say I know what you're talking about." She looked inquiringly at him, then resumed pouring the tea. "Do come in and sit down."

  "I'll just put these back," Dr. Burrows said, returning to the basement. Before he left, he couldn't resist another quick look around the place, even resorting to stamping on the ground to see if there was a trapdoor hidden there. He did the same in the small garden, stamping around the lawn while trying to avoid the plastic dishes, all the time watched curiously by Mrs. Tantrumi's cats.

  * * * * *

  On the other side of town, Chester and Will were back in the Forty Pits tunnel.

  "So what did your dad say? What does he think we've found?" Chester asked as Will used a mallet and coal chisel to loosen the mortar between the bricks in the unidentified structure.

  "We looked at the maps again, and there's nothing on them." He was lying; Dr. Burrows had not emerged from the cellar before Will had gone to bed and had left the house before Will was up in the morning.

  "No water mains, sewers, or anything on this plot," Will went on, trying to reassure Chester. "The brickwork is pretty solid, you know — this thing was built to last." Will had already removed two layers of bricks but hadn't yet broken through. "Look, if I'm wrong about this and anything gushes out, just make sure you get yourself to the far side of the main chamber. The flow should carry you up to the entrance," Will said, redoubling his efforts on the brickwork.

  "What?" Chester asked quickly. "A flow… carry me up? I don't like the sound of that at all. I'm out of here." He turned to go, paused as if undecided, then made up his mind and began walking toward the main chamber, grumbling to himself all the way.

  Will simply shrugged. There was no way he was going to stop, not with the possibility that he could bring to light some fantastic mystery, something so important that it would bowl over his father, and that he'd discovered by himself. And no one was going to stop him, not even Chester. He immediately proceeded to chisel around another brick, chipping away at the wedge of mortar at its edge.

  Without warning, part of the mortar exploded with a high pneumatic hiss, and a chunk of it shot straight past Will's gloved hands like a stone bullet and struck the tunnel wall behind him. He dropped his tools and flopped back onto the ground in astonishment. Shaking his head, he pulled himself together and set about the task of removing the brick, which he accomplished in seconds.

  "Hey, Chester!" Will called.

  "Yeah, what?" Chester shouted gruffly from the main chamber. "What is it?"

  "There's no water!" Will shouted back, his voice echoing oddly. "Come and see."

  Chester reluctantly retraced his steps. He found that Will had indeed penetrated the wall and was holding his face up to the small breach he'd made, sniffing at the air.

  "It's definitely not a sewage pipe, but it was under pressure," Will said.

  "Could it be a gas pipe?"

  "Nope, doesn't smell like it and, anyway, they've never been made of brick. Judging by the echo, it's quite a large space." His eyes flashed with anticipation. "I just knew we were on to something. Get me a candle and the iron rod from the main chamber, will you?"

  When Chester returned, Will lit the candle a good distance back from the hole and then carried it slowly before him, nearer and nearer to the opening, watching the flame intently with every step he took.

  "What does that do?" Chester asked as he looked on in fascination.

  "If there are any gases you'll notice a difference in the way it burns," Will answered matter-of-factly. "They did this when they cracked open the pyramids." There was no change in the flickering flame as he brought it closer, then held it directly in front of the opening. "Looks like we're all clear," he said as he blew out the flame and reached for the iron rod Chester had leaned against the tunnel wall. He carefully lined up the ten-foot pole with the hole and then rammed it through, pushing it all the way in until only a short length protruded from between the bricks.

  "It hasn't hit anything — it's pretty big," Will said excitedly, grunting with exertion as he checked the depth by letting the end of the pole swing down. "But I think I can feel what might be the floor. OK, let's widen this a bit more."

  They worked together and within moments had removed enough bricks for Will to slither through headfirst. He landed with a muffled groan.

  "Will, are you all right?" Chester called.

  "Yes. Just a bit of a drop," he replied. "Come in feetfirst, and I'll guide you down."

  Chester made it through after a tremendous struggle, his shoulders being broader that Will's. Once he was in, they both began to look around.

  It was an octagonal chamber, with each of its eight walls arching up to a central point about twenty feet above their heads. At its apex was what appeared to be a carved stone rose. They shone their flashlights in hushed reverence, taking in the Gothic beading set into the perfectly laid brickwork. The floor was also constructed from bricks laid end on end.

  "Awesome!" Chester whispered. "Who'd have ever expected to find anything like this?"

  "It's like the crypt of a church, isn't it?" Will said. "But the strangest thing is…"

  "Yes?" Chester shone his flashlight at Will.

  "It's absolutely bone-dry. And the air's sort of sharp, too. I'm not sure—"

  "Have you seen this, Will?" Chester interrupted, flicking his light around the floor and then over the wall nearest to him. "There's something written on the bricks. All of them!"

  Will immediately swiveled around to study the wall closest to him, reading the elaborate Gothi
c script carved into the face of every brick. "You're right. They're names: James Hobart, Andrew Kellogg, William Butts, John Cooper…"

  "Simon Jennings, Daniel Lethbridge, Silas Samuels, Abe Winterbotham, Caryll Pickering… there must be thousands in here," Chester said.

  Will pulled his mallet from his belt and began to knock on the walls, taking soundings to see if there was any sign of a hollow or adjoining passage. He had methodically tapped away at two of the eight walls when for no apparent reason he suddenly stopped. He clapped a hand to his forehead and swallowed hard.

  "Do you feel that?" he asked Chester.

  "Yeah, my ears popped," Chester agreed, sticking a gloved finger roughly into one of his ears. "Just like when you take off in a plane."

  They were both silent, as if waiting for something to happen. Then they felt a tremor, an inaudible tone, somewhat akin to a low note played on an organ — a throbbing was building, seemingly within their skulls.

  "I think we should get out." Chester looked at his friend blankly, swallowing now not because of his ears but because of the waves of nausea welling up inside him.

  For once Will did not disagree. He gulped a quick yes, blinking as spots appeared before his eyes.

  They both clambered back through the gap in double-quick time, then made their way to the armchairs in the main cavern and slumped down in them. Although they had said nothing of it to each other at the time, the inexplicable sensations had ceased almost immediately after they were outside the chamber.

  "What was that in there?" Chester asked, opening his mouth wide to flex his jaw and pressing the palms of his hands against his ears.

  "I don't know," Will replied. "I'll get my dad to come and see it — he might have an explanation. Must be a pressure buildup or something."

  "Do you think it's a crypt, from where a church once stood… with all those names?"

  "Maybe," Will replied, deep in thought. "But somebody — craftsmen, stonemasons — built it very carefully, not even leaving any debris behind as they went, and then just as carefully sealed it up. Why in the world would they go to all that trouble?"

  "I didn't think of that. You're right."

  "And there was no way in or out. I couldn't find any sign of connecting passages — not a single one. A self-contained chamber with names, like some sort of memorial or something?" Will pondered, completely befuddled. "What are we on to here?"

  8

  Having learned that Rebecca could be very unforgiving and that it was really not worth incurring her wrath — not just before mealtimes, at any rate — Will shook himself down and stamped the worst of the mud from his boots before bursting in through the front door. Slinging his backpack to the floor, he froze in astonishment, the tools inside still clattering against one another.

  A very odd scene greeted him. The door to the living room was closed, and Rebecca was crouched down beside it, her ear pressed to the keyhole. She frowned the moment she saw him.

  "What—" Will's question was cut short as Rebecca rose swiftly, shushing him with a forefinger to her lips. She seized her bemused brother by the arm and pulled him forcibly into the kitchen.

  "What's going on?" Will demanded in an indignant whisper.

  This was all very odd indeed. Rebecca, the original Little Miss Perfect, was in the very act of eavesdropping on their parents, something he would never have expected from her.

  But there was something even more remarkable than this: the living room door itself. It was closed. Will turned his head to look at it again, not quite believing his eyes.

  "That door had been wedged open for as long as I can remember," he said. "You know how she hates—"

  "They're arguing!" Rebecca said momentously.

  "They're what? About what?"

  "I'm not sure. The first thing I heard was Mum shouting at him to shut the door, and I was just trying to hear more when you barged in."

  "You must have heard something."

  Rebecca didn't answer him immediately.

  "Come on," Will pressed her. "What did you hear?"

  "Well," she started slowly, "she was screaming that he was a royal failure… and that he should stop wasting his time on complete nonsense."

  "What else?"

  "Couldn't hear the rest, but they were both very angry. They were sort of growling at each other. It must be really important — she's missing Friends !"

  Will opened the fridge and idly inspected a container of yogurt before putting it back. "So what could it be about, then? I don't remember them ever doing this before."

  Just then the living room door was flung open, making both Will and Rebecca jump, and Dr. Burrows stormed out, his face bright red and his eyes thunderous as he made a beeline for the cellar door. Fumbling with his key and muttering incomprehensibly under his breath, he unlocked it and then banged it shut behind him.

  Will and Rebecca were still peering around the corner of the kitchen door when they heard Mrs. Burrows shouting.

  "YOU'RE GOOD FOR NOTHING, YOU PATHETIC FOSSIL! YOU CAN STAY DOWN THERE AND ROT FOR ALL I CARE, YOU STUPID OLD RELIC!" she shrieked at the top of her lungs as she slammed the living room door with an almighty crash.

  "That can't be good for the paintwork," Will said distantly.

  Rebecca was so intent on what was happening, she didn't appear to have heard him.

  "God, this is so freakin' annoying. I really need to talk to him about what we found today," he continued, grumbling.

  This time she did hear him. "You can forget that! My advice is to just stay out of the way until things blow over." She stuck out her chin with great self-importance. "If they ever do. Anyway, the food's ready. Just help yourself. In fact, you can help yourself to the whole thing… I don't think anyone else is going to have an appetite."

  Without a further word, Rebecca spun around and left the room. Will moved his eyes from the empty doorway where she'd been to the oven and gave a small shrug.

  He wolfed down two and a half of the oven-ready meals and then made his way upstairs in the now uncannily quiet house. There wasn't even the usual strains of the television coming from the living room below as, sitting up in his bed, he meticulously polished his shovel until it gleamed and sent reflections rippling across the ceiling. Then he leaned over to lay it gently on the floor, switched off the light on his bedside table, and slid under his blankets.

  9

  Will woke with a lazy yawn, looking blearily around the room, until he noticed the light creeping in at the edges of the curtains. He sat up sharply as it dawned on him that something was not quite right. There was a surprising lack of the usual morning hubbub in the house. He glanced at his alarm clock. He'd overslept. The events of last night had completely thrown him and he'd forgotten to set it.

  He found some relatively clean items of his school uniform in the bottom of his closet and, quickly throwing them on, went across to the bathroom to brush his teeth.

  Emerging from the bathroom he saw that the door to Rebecca's room was open, and he paused outside to listen for a moment. He'd learned not to blunder straight in; this was her inner sanctum, and she had berated him for entering unannounced several times before. Because there were no signs of life, he decided to take a look. It was as spotless as ever — her bed immaculately made and her home clothes laid out in readiness for her return from school — everything clean and shipshape and in its place. He spotted her little black alarm clock on her bedside table. Why didn't she get me up? he thought.

  He then saw that his parents' door was ajar, too, and he couldn't resist putting his head around the corner. The bed hadn't been slept in. This was not right at all.

  Where were they? Will reflected on the previous evening's argument between his parents, the gravity of which now began to sink in.

  Although he'd never stopped to give it much thought, Will was aware that his home life was pretty strange, to say the least. All four members of the family were so different, as if they'd been thoughtlessly thrown together by
circumstances beyond their control, like four complete strangers who happened to share the same car on a train. Somehow it had hung together; each knew his or her place, and the end result, if not entirely happy, had seemed to have found its own peculiar equilibrium. But now the whole thing was in danger of coming crashing down. At least that was how it felt to Will that morning.

  As he stood in the middle of the landing, he listened to the disquieting silence again, glancing from bedroom door to bedroom door. This was serious.

  "It would have to happen now… just when I've found something so amazing," he muttered to himself. He longed to speak to Dr. Burrows, to tell him about the Pits tunnel and the strange chamber that he and Chester had stumbled upon. It was as if it all meant nothing without his approval, his "Well done, Will," and his fatherly smile of pride in his son's achievement.

  As he tiptoed downstairs, Will had the oddest feeling of being an intruder in his own home. He glanced at the living room door. It was still closed. Mum must have slept in there, he thought as he went into the kitchen. On the table was a single bowl; from the few remaining Rice Krispies clinging to it, he could tell that his sister had already had her breakfast and left for school. The fact that she hadn't cleaned up after herself, and the absence of his father's cornflakes bowl and teacup on the table or in the sink, caused vague alarm bells to ring in his head. This frozen snapshot of everyday activity had become the clue to a mystery, like the little pieces of evidence at a crime scene, which, if read in the right way, would give him the answer to what exactly was going on.

  But it was no good. He could find no answers here, and he realized he had to be on his way.

  "This is like a bad dream," he grumbled to himself as he hastily poured his Wheaties into a bowl. "Total cave-in," he added, glumly crunching on the cereal.

 
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