CHAPTER TWENTY SEVEN
“I’m sorry.” He sounded genuinely shocked by my reaction. “I didn’t mean…” his voice tailed off.
“That was just so patronising!” I exploded. “And two faced! It’s all very well for you to be nice to me now, when you need my help, but what about the way you’ve treated me at school, sneering at me, forcing me to write reports, sending me disciplinary letters, telling me off, snubbing me…”
“Sneering at you? Snubbing you? When?” He sounded perplexed.
“The other day, remember? I came to offer you my support, and you ignored me and flounced off with the Fowl!”
“The Fowl? Who on earth is…”
“Never mind,” I said hastily. “But it was after the staff meeting, remember?”
“Oh. Yes, I do remember. Dora, it wasn’t anything to do with you.”
“Then what was it?”
“I would have thought it was obvious. I was listening to what you had to say, and then your friend appeared on the scene. Zelda, the dance teacher. She put me in a very difficult situation. There we were in the staff room and she was calling Mr Wheel a ‘chocolate teapot’. And then she called Mr Pickering a ‘hopeless alkie’.”
“But Mr Pickering had left by then.”
“That doesn’t make it OK. Your friend was yelling her head off. I hardly have let her publicly slag off other staff for everyone to hear. She was being totally unprofessional. I shall
have to speak to her about it.”
“And you’ll enjoy that, won’t you? Dealing with the staff while the kids run riot? OK, I understand, Zelda was out of order, although I doubt if she realised other people could hear. But Zelda’s one of the best teachers in the school! I’ve seen her take three classes on her own all at once, seventy kids in the school hall, all doing their dance moves and not one of them daring to muck about! She’s creative, she’s energetic, and even if she is a little off the wall at times, the school needs her! Just as it needs people like Josh.”
“Yes, I do appreciate…”
“What maddens me about you is you’re so correct. You always want to talk about paperwork and procedures and signing out books and professional behaviour. What about the real issues? All the people who had to teach under Mr Wheel’s mismanagement have had a miserable time. And it’ll be no good if you just come along and take over by criticising the staff and as for the way you walk around with that pompous briefcase of yours…”
“My briefcase? You object to my briefcase?”
“Yes!” I hissed.
There was a brief silence.
“Well,” he said mildly. “You do seem to have condemned me on a very brief acquaintance. Dora, there’s a lot I could say in my defence, but don’t you think it might be a good idea for us to save this for later, once we’re out of here? If you could just find your mobile…”
There was a sudden, loud gurgling noise close to my ear.
“Grief!” I said. “What was that?”
“My stomach,” he admitted. “Awful manners, I know. You didn’t bring any
food with you, did you? I’m sorry to mention this, but I haven’t eaten since yesterday morning.”
“Oh, hell.” Suddenly, I felt contrite. The poor man must be starving. Why hadn’t I thought of that?
“I’ve got some glucose tablets,” I said, pulling them out of my rucksack, “Quick
energy fix.” I put the packet into his hand.
“Thanks.” I heard him tearing the packet open.
“And here’s my faithful old mobile,” I fished it out and pressed the button. The screen lit up with a pale blue light. “My son keeps telling me I should get a new one. He’s says this one’s an antique. A brick, he calls it. It doesn’t take photos and it doesn’t play music. But, as you see, the advantage of this brick is that it’s got a quite a big screen. But doesn’t exactly give a dazzling light, does it?”
“It’s better than nothing,” Aidan popped a glucose tablet into his mouth. “At least we won’t be stumbling around in complete darkness.”
“Won’t we? Look, it’s just gone out.”
“Press the button again.”
“OK.” I pressed it and saw the logo of a magnifying glass moving across the screen, indicating the search for a signal. I could tell from the length of time it was taking that, just as I’d thought, there was no signal down here.
“So I’ll have to keep pressing the button every few seconds to keep the light on,” I said, pressing the button again. “Just look at this place. What do you think it is?”
“Just an underground store-room of some kind, I suppose.”
“Are you sure? What about those long wooden boxes in the alcoves? They look like coffins. This could be a crypt or a catacomb of some kind.”
“Oh, I don’t think so! We’re in a cellar under one of the old warehouses aren’t we? And by the way, one of those boxes has got Ffyes written on it, which suggests this place belonged to a fruit importer. Right. Can you remember the way you came?”
“Yes. We go through that arch. After that, you can only walk upright for just a few feet, then the roof gets low. We’ll have to crawl through a kind of tunnel. It’s very narrow. Then there’s a bend to the right, and later another one to the left, and after going along the tunnel for about twenty or minutes we should find the entrance to another cellar. And then, it’s easy. Up some steps, and into an old shed at the back of the warehouses by the canal. I’d better go first.”
“I can’t let you do that.”
“Why not? Don’t you think I can manage?”
“I’m sure you can, but it sounds dangerous. Please, let me go first.”
“You’d better wear the climbing helmet,” I said. “The roof’s really low in places.”
“I wouldn’t dream of taking your climbing helmet. But I will take the mobile. Shall we go then?”
“Stop a minute,” I said, as we reached the arch way. “Shine the light upwards.”
He held up the mobile. In the dim blue light, I saw the carvings again, the sneering gargoyle faces, the sculpted teeth and claws of the mythical creatures.
“I think this is really old,” I said. “Eighteenth century.”
“Hmm,” he peered at it, and then put out his hand. “It seems to be made of papier-mache.”
“It isn’t. It’s real. It’s stone!”
“No,” he knocked his fist against it. “Papier-mache. You know what I think? I think this is from a fairground. In fact, this looks just like the entrance to the ghost train they used to have on the Heath in the summer when I was a kid. It seemed very scary then, especially with all the joke spiders and the strange noises.”
Joke spiders? I thought. The one I’d defeated had been no joke, especially when it mewed at me like a cat. And I knew I’d felt those arms round me, pulling back into the Gehenna Gate. But perhaps it was better to allow him his Scooby-Doo explanation, the one that belonged to the everyday, rational world that he inhabited. Perhaps, in the circumstances, it was better not to start talking about ancient labyrinths built by a mad nobleman who was into Satanism, or about the fact that we could be in the very Maw where the demon Mochelmoth was due to rise, when the thirty eighth hour is struck. The thirty eighth hour? Grief! Just how long had we been down here?
“Let’s not argue about it,” I said. My chest suddenly felt tight. “Let’s just get out of here.”
We were making tortuous progress, and the tunnel eemed even worse than I remembered. The space seemed tighter, the walls slimier, the ground wetter, and the air more stale and offensive.
“Are you all right back there?” he called.
“Fine,” I said, crawling forward.
“I think we should keep talking. Did you read my letter?”
“I guessed what it was.”
“Yes. And I’m not interested.”
“Oh, that’s a pity, because…can you hear running water?”
“Yes,” I said, after a moment. “It sounds like a pipe line. On the other side of the wall.”
“I think that…ah”!” I heard a crash.
“What was that?”
“My head getting up close and personal with the wall,” he said, in a rueful tone. “I
don’t want to worry you, but the thing is, I can’t seem to go any further. This is a dead end.”
“A dead end?” I swallowed.
“Yes. We’re going to have to go back.”
“But we can’t turn round here!”
“No. But we just need to move backwards. And I’ll keep feeling along the wall for a gap. Maybe the bend to the right that you remembered was actually to the left?”
“No, it wasn’t! I remembered it all perfectly.”
“OK. But we’ve obviously gone the wrong way. Sooner or later, we’ll find the way we should have come.”
But would we? A dead end. My stomach knotted up at the thought. Of course there were dead ends. It was a pure fluke that I missed them on my way in. We were in a maze, and I’d had no way of marking my way. This was it then, we were lost and before long we’d be in a tunnel with no air, or it would start raining and the place would fill up with water and…
“Dora? Can you start moving back?”
“My pleasure,” I swallowed my panic.
“Right. You move back about two feet, then call to me, and I’ll move back. We’ll go in turn. And don’t worry. There has to be a way out of here.”
“OK, I’m moving,” I said. I scrabbled backwards. “Now your turn.”
“Right. Ooops, sorry, was that you?”
“That was me,” I said. His foot had collided with my knee. “No damage down. Now it’s my turn to move.”
“Right. Hey, you know something?”
“I’d been thinking that you and I ought to get to know each other better. I felt that
somehow we’d got off on the wrong foot. But I never imagined it happening quite like this.”
“Me, neither. Your move.”
I edged back again, and reached out with my hands on either side, hoping that the tunnel might be getting wider. It wasn’t. I felt filthy and disgusting and covered in grime and mud.
“Hey,” I said. “There’s a space here. Over to my left. If I can just squeeze through…oh, no!”
“What is it?”
“Shine the mobile over here. Oh, grief! I’m right! Just look! We’re back where we started!”
“This makes no sense at all,” he stood next to me, staring at the chamber with its alcoves and
oblong boxes that might or might not be ancient, rudimentary coffins. “We must have been crawling down that tunnel for at least twenty minutes before we reached the dead end. But now, after moving back for a only a few minutes, we’re here.”
“Yes, but we haven’t come through the archway, have we?” I said. “We’ve come through a low gap in the wall. I can only assume that the tunnel went round in a circle and that somehow, we missed the way I came in the first time.”
“Right. Yes, of course, that must be it,” he said. “Although I still don’t understand how that can have happened. Maybe if we tried that door again…”
“It’s no good,” I said, “9X must have locked it from the outside.”
“But why did they do that?” he puzzled. “And why did they take so long to raise the
ransom money? And why didn’t they just come back and let me out when they had? Why
were you sent to get me the hard way, and why…?”
“Oh for goodness sake!” The words burst out before I could stop myself. “Don’t you understand? 9X didn’t do this for charity. They didn’t even do it to raise money for themselves. I’m the only person who’s worked out that you’re missing! Everyone else thinks you’re at a Head Teachers’ Conference, 9X sent a fake fax in this morning, saying that you’d gone to one and that you wouldn’t be back until after half term. But you were never going to come back! That’s why they left you here without any food, and with drugged water to make you ill, and that’s why they tied you up in the dark and didn’t tell anyone. You were supposed to die down here!”
“Die? They wanted me to die?”
“Yes, eaten by a demon!”
“It was based on a computer game,” I added, hastily. “Don’t take it personally. Actually, they like you. That’s why you were chosen for the sacrifice.”
“Those poor kids,” he murmured. “So little in their lives, just violent films and games, and parents who neglect them…is it any wonder that they…oh, sorry, I…dizzy…” To my alarm, he staggered, and then slumped on to the ground.
“Quick,” I knelt down beside him. “Deep breaths. Here,” I reached into my rucksack, “Have some more water.”
The moment as I said this, I realised that the water bottle empty was empty. And he was completely out of it. He’d fainted, and I could only hope that it was just from exhaustion and hunger, and not a case of delayed concussion from having hit his head minutes before. Now what? I supposed I should try and lay him on his side, in the recovery position, except that I had only the vaguest idea of what the recovery position was. And his breathing sounded weird, almost as though he was…
The scente and agonie of the starving and dying manne…no! Surely not!
“Aidan!” I shook him and then, having decided this was no time to pussy-foot around, I slapped his face. “Stop this! You can’t do this to me! I think it’s lovely that you still care about those vile kids but they’ve dumped you in the Maw of Mochelmoth, and when the thirty eighth hour is struck…”
And then I heard it. A ferocious, inhuman roar, just above my head, that told me we were no longer alone.
I may have given the impression that my life was completely normal until the day I found out that I’d been tricked into marrying the son of a rural witch and Gertie cursed me. That was certainly was the beginning of the strange misfortunes that afflicted my adult life, and everything that happened afterwards, Dave’s death, my marriage to Peregrine, the hauntings in Arcadia Square and my discovery of the occult underbelly of North London life, seemed to be connected to that moment. But it wasn’t the beginning of the strangeness. Right from when I was a very small child, I’d seen visitants from beyond the veil.
When I was three, my parents were killed in a plane crash over Switzerland and I went to live with Auntie Pam and Uncle Horace. And on the anniversary of their death, I saw a man standing in the wall in our garden. He was the most beautiful man I’d ever seen, and he was dressed all in white, and he had eyes like a cat’s, not human at all. He raised one hand, and then, I heard what he was thinking. Your parents are safe with me. And then he flew away. It was only a year later, when I started school, a small Church school where there were weekly scripture lessons, that I knew I’d seen an angel.
After that, I saw and heard other things, like the little imp that used to perch on top of our TV, and the old man who used to sigh on the landing. Auntie Pam said my visions were the result of reading too many comics and watching Dr Who, but I knew they couldn’t be explained away quite so easily. It wasn’t as though I liked being different . I didn’t. I longed to be normal. And I was sure that I was normal. I had no powers. But I could see things; I attracted these paranormal entities. And there was nothing I could do about it.
And now, it seemed, I was about to be confronted with my first demon. Well, so be it. I was equal to the task! I reached into my rucksack, and pulled out the best defensive weapon I possessed. The weeds.
I heard the metal door clanking open. There was a rush of foggy air from outside and then I saw it, standing above me. A huge, bulky figure appeared. It seemed to be almost seven feet tall. It had outstretched, big, banana hands, and one dazzling, bright eye in the centre of its forehead. I leapt to my feet, positioning myself in front of Aidan’s prone body.
“You can’t have him!” I yelled, waving my weapon in the air. “Get away from him. He’s under my protection, Mochelmoth! Look what I’ve got! Henbane, this is henbane!”
There was a loud roar, but this time it wasn’t the sound of the souped-up engine of the truck that I’d mistaken for the raging of a hell-beast. This time, it was the sound of laughter.
“Bloody hell, the little toe-rag was telling the truth!” said a voice, in a thick, Irish brogue. “Believe it or not, I don’t have any designs on your boyfriend. But I have come to get you out of there before something scarier than me turns up. Come on, let’s be having you.”