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Authors: Gillian Cross

The Black Room (13 page)

BOOK: The Black Room
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But—hadn't the bowl been full of food when she brought it in? It was empty now, but there were smears of green and brown all over the bottom and the sides. Hadn't the dishcloth been folded neatly? Now it was screwed up into a dirty ball. The rest of the tray was smeared too, as though someone had spread the contents of the bowl all over it, with both hands.
And there was at least one thing missing. Tom tried to remember what it was, but the image was elusive. His mind teased him with vague impressions of a tall, brightly colored shape that he couldn't identify. What
He was concentrating so hard that he didn't hear the kitchen door open. So he was completely unprepared for the sudden glare of the security light and the pale, pudgy face that peered around the outside corner of the conservatory.
It was Warren.
He obviously wasn't expecting to see Tom. His eyes widened and he opened his mouth to yell. But as Tom looked up, their eyes met—and Warren recognized him. For one crucial second, he was too startled to make a sound.
Tom reacted instinctively, jumping up to face him. Darting his face forward, he hissed the first thing that came into his head. “Don't you mess with me! I know where you live, Warren Armstrong!”
The effect was out of all proportion. Warren's face went white and he shrank away, as if he was used to being bullied. Tom felt slightly sick, but he didn't waste his chance. Before Warren could recover, he raced for the cover of the cypress hedge.
There was no time to work his way along it and go back the way he'd come. He simply scrambled up the nearest tree and threw himself over the fence, into the garden next door. As he hit the ground, he heard Warren start to shout.
“Dad! Come here!

The kitchen door opened again, and a cold voice said, “What is it? Be quiet!”
Tom didn't wait to hear any more. He flung himself down the garden where he had landed, heading for the far corner. There, at the farthest tip, the garden just touched the highway embankment. If he could get out onto the embankment, he would be safe. No one would be able to track him down in those tangled bushes. Not without a helicopter.
The fence at the corner of the garden was low and dilapidated, with a compost heap built up against it. It was easy to scramble over and crawl into the undergrowth. He managed it just in time. A few seconds later, he glimpsed a light coming down toward him, flicking first into one garden and then into the other. And as it came, a cold voice was calling. It wasn't loud, but it was the most frightening voice he'd ever heard.
“Come out and speak to us. Otherwise we shall call the police. You can't escape. Come out and talk.”
Tom had no intention of talking to Mr. Armstrong. He lay as still as he could in the brambles at the bottom of the embankment, huddled close against the fence. Trying not to shiver as he listened to that cold, controlled voice. It had no expression in it at all. Not even a threat. But the more he listened to it, the more he wished Mr. Armstrong
call the police.
But he won't do it. Whatever he says.
That was the threat he'd used to get rid of Robert before.
If I see you again, I shall have to call the police.
But he hadn't done it. Even though he'd found Robert in the garden, heading for his house. It would have been perfectly reasonable to call the police then. But all he'd done was take a stupid picture.
The voice called again, from farther along the hedge. “It's no use trying to hide. If you do, we'll get the police to find you.”
Tom lay still and watched the flashlight going up and down the fence for almost a quarter of an hour, with the cold voice calling softly to him, alternately threatening and wheedling. Even when it stopped, he didn't come out of hiding. He lay where he was, while the security light went out and the garden settled into a dark, rustling silence.
When it had been empty and quiet for a long time, he began to crawl slowly through the bushes, heading back along the embankment. The brambles still tore at his clothes and scratched his face, but this time he barely felt them. His mind was going over and over the things he'd seen, trying to make sense of them. But he couldn't.
All he knew was that he had to get back and talk to Robert.
LORN WOKE IN THE MIDDLE OF THE NIGHT. COLD AIR WAS blowing down through the entrance, turning her cheek numb and making her teeth ache. She sat up, rubbing at her face—and saw a cavern full of sleepers.
Dess and Bando were awake, because they were looking after the fire, but all the others were fast asleep, curled up under heaps of bat-fur blankets. The cavern was quiet except for the scrape of logs being moved.
I could go down to the storeroom now,
Lorn thought.
I could go without being seen
It wasn't a conscious decision. As soon as the thought came to her, she was sliding out from under her furs, making for the shadows at the side of the cavern. Her bare feet were silent on the trampled earth, and no one stirred as she went by.
Even the stokers weren't a problem. It was easy to get past them without being seen. When Dess lifted a log over the rim of the brazier, Bando looked toward the fire, too, grinning in the red light. He loved watching the rush of sparks as the log fell into the flames.
In that moment, Lorn slipped quickly forward, past the brazier and into the shadowy place behind. Then, as Bando turned away to pick up a new log, she padded forward and down the ramp, moving silently on the soft earth.
When she reached the darkness beyond the ramp, she closed her eyes and let her mind change gear. Her other senses stirred and took over, and she turned her head and sniffed at the swirling air, flaring her nostrils wide to catch the changing scents. As she sniffed, she shifted from one foot to the other, listening to the faint noise they made on the soft earth.
In a few seconds, she knew exactly where she was aiming. She could feel the wall on the other side of the space and taste the damp sourness of the earth that held it together. Walking quickly and surely across the storeroom, she knelt down in front of the wall. And her hands went straight to the hidden passage.
She had disguised it with two stones, one at each end, so that even with a light, no one else would be able to find it. But she knew exactly where it was. With one tug, she pulled the loose stone out of the wall, rolling it away to one side.
There was a quick trickle of earth and then silence. She could feel a draft of colder air coming through from the other end.
Quickly, before she could think about what might happen, she went head first into the hole, squirming through the narrow space on her stomach. Some of the earth had fallen and settled, leaving unexpected ridges and gaps. As she worked herself along, she updated the images in her mind so that she knew the shape of the passage exactly.
When she reached the stone that blocked the other end, she wriggled forward and laid her hands flat against it. Putting all her weight behind them, she pushed once, twice, three times.
The stone rolled out of the way, and she fell forward into the empty space beyond the wall.
THE MOMENT SHE WAS IN THE TUNNEL, SHE FELT A CHANGE in the air around her. It was much colder on that side of the wall—cold enough to make her shiver—and it smelled quite different. Back in the storeroom, the walls were drying out already, in the heat that came down the ramp. This tunnel had the damp scent of living earth. And another scent, too, rank and animal. She stood up and took a long breath, trying to recognize the smell, but she couldn't figure out what it was.
Then she put out a hand to touch the wall, and her knuckles brushed against soft, loosening earth. In the darkness, its texture against her skin was suddenly, shockingly familiar. Her mind flooded with—what?
Not memories, exactly. There were no pictures in her head, no sudden links with something in the past. It was more as though the damp smell and the loose earth ... belonged to her. As though she knew them better than anything else in the world.
Everything drew her on, into the tunnel.
Go down,
said a voice inside her head.
If you want to be safe, if you want to understand, then you have to go down....
Clicking her tongue softly against the roof of her mouth, she turned her head to the right, letting the image of the tunnel sharpen in her head. It sloped slightly upward, and a faint draft of fresh, new air floated down toward her.
That way led to the surface, sooner or later.
When she turned the other way, the sounds and the smells were quite different. She could hear the tunnel going down into the earth, constantly twisting and turning, until her mind couldn't work out the shapes anymore. The air there was breathable, but the animal smell was much stronger.
She turned that way, shuffling soft earth under her feet as she moved forward. With every step she took, the close, meaty scent grew stronger, clinging to the walls. She couldn't help picturing the huge animal that had left the scent, pushing along the tunnel with its damp fur dragging against every surface. She imagined its head darting about and its hot, hungry eyes peering into the shadows while its nose sniffed greedily at the air.
Why take the risk of meeting a creature like that?
The rational part of her mind knew the danger she was running, but something stronger kept her moving on and down, putting one foot automatically in front of the other. After a few minutes, she came to a place where the tunnel forked into two, and she faced each branch in turn, speaking aloud to test how they sounded.
“I'm Lorn. I'm exploring.”
The left-hand tunnel twisted away to the right, rising slightly as it went. The other one sloped downward, going deeper into the earth. She chose that one, not understanding why but stepping decisively into it. Going farther down.
She had walked about a hundred steps when she heard the first, faint noise.
It wasn't what she was expecting—and fearing. She'd been listening for scrabbling and scraping and the breathing of some big, warm-blooded animal. But what she heard was different.
It was a sticky, gliding, slithering sound, faint but unmistakable, coming from somewhere ahead. She could hear the suck and kiss of wet, ridged surfaces sliding against each other, in a pattern so complicated that she couldn't work it out.
What kind of shapes would make that noise? Her mind slid away from the effort of visualizing them, refusing to turn the sounds into pictures. But she knew—she
—that she had heard those sounds before. She screwed up her eyes and began to hum, forcing herself to concentrate on the echoes that came back to her.
I know what that is. I know
Her mind reached out, determined and insistent. At first, it met the usual blank barrier that shut out all her memories. But this time, she wouldn't accept the barrier. Everything was crying out to her now. The smell of the air, the feel of the earth, the slithering sounds deep under the ground.
I will remember. I WILL.
With all the force of her mind, she pushed at the barrier—and suddenly it broke. Images came pushing up from the darkness at the bottom of her mind, not separate and detached like pictures, but part of herself. As close as her own body.
And completely incomprehensible.
Noise is bad, noise from the mouth is bad, bad, bad. BAD
GIRL. And the hair goes. They take the hair away....
Over, over, under, over
no. No way to make the patterns
anymore. Only the fingers turning and twisting and
turning ...
Only the hands going up and down the black room,
hunting, wanting, empty, empty ...
Searching for anything to make the patterns.
And then finding the shapes. One, two, three
Her hands remembered. Not giant slithering shapes, but small, small, small. From
She knew exactly how they had felt between her fingers. How they'd slid away, refusing to keep the patterns. The memory was real. It was hers.
But her brain couldn't decipher it. Where had she been? And why had she been so desperate to twist those slithering, ungovernable shapes into neat, tight braids?
It didn't make
She struggled to grasp the images, but they slipped away from her explanations, refusing to be understood. Determination wasn't enough. She needed something more, another memory....
It didn't come. Instead, a sound from outside broke in, forcing itself on her attention. Someone was calling her name, not very close, but nearer than any voice should have been.
For a moment, the word had no meaning for her. She was away in another place, feeling long, wet shapes slide through her fingers, and Lorn had nothing to do with her. She was ... she was—
BOOK: The Black Room
6.53Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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