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Authors: Gillian Cross

The Black Room (18 page)

BOOK: The Black Room
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“No memories?” Zak said. “Are you
“Nothing I can understand. Nothing that makes sense. Only—”
She stopped because she wanted him to finish the sentence for her. She wanted him to tell her about the voice in her head, to say that it was nothing to worry over.
But all he said was, “Pick up the blankets.”
The moment she had them, he began to move down the slope, very slowly, leaning on her arm so that she had to go with him. Step by step they made their way back to the cavern entrance, but as they knelt down to go in, Lorn caught the noise from inside. The others were still talking all at once, laughing with excitement. Letting go of Zak's arm, Lorn tried to draw back, but he caught hold of her hand and wouldn't let her go.
“If things don't make sense, that means you need to find out more,” he said. “If you run away, you'll never figure it out.”
Lorn bent her head, mumbling at the ground. “Suppose I'm better off not knowing?”
“I've never thought of you as a coward,” Zak said.
His voice was so weak now, that she could hardly hear it. Getting him back into the cavern was more urgent than anything. She waved her hand at the entrance tunnel. “You go first. Then I can give you a push if you need it.”
He gave her a wry, sideways smile, but he didn't argue. Going down onto his belly, he slid into the tunnel, pulling himself forward with his arms. He managed without any help, but when he stood up inside the cavern, he was staggering with exhaustion. Lorn slid out after him and jumped up, putting a hand under his elbow.
“You shouldn't have come out,” she said.
“If I hadn't come, you would have died.”
She knew he was right. She would have slipped into a frozen sleep, with that strange, familiar voice going on and on in her head.
One of the patterns you can trust... Like sweetness in the mouth and strings that wind together...
It wouldn't have taken long to die out there in the cold. Zak had saved her life.
But it had taken all his energy. He was leaning heavily on her arm now, looking toward the corner by the brazier.
“Come on,” Lorn said. “We've got to get warm.” She started to lead him down the cavern.
“There you are.” Perdew looked around as they went past. “So you weren't in the storeroom after all?”
“What?” Lorn stopped and stared at him. “What are you talking about?”
“Oh, it was Bando.” Perdew grinned. “You know what he's like. He noticed you weren't in the cavern, and he got it in his head that you had to be down in the storeroom. For some reason he went charging down there to get you back.”
“So where is he now?” Lorn said sharply.
Perdew shrugged. “Still down there, probably. Blundering around and knocking over all the grain heaps. Do you want me to go and find him?”
“No. No, I'll have to go.” Lorn looked quickly at Zak. “I'm sorry—”
Zak just nodded and slipped his arm out of hers. “Off you go,” he said gently.
She was off immediately, not waiting to explain to anyone. They could ask questions when she came back. What she had to do now was find Bando, as fast as she could.
Let him be in the storeroom. Please let him still be there.
She had no idea how long he'd been down there. But she knew exactly why he'd gone. The moment he thought she was in danger, he would have been off to rescue her.
Don't let him be in the tunnel. Let him still be blundering around.
He couldn't have found the opening. He
Not in the dark, with no one to show him the way. He would have had to feel his way all along the wall to find the right stone. Surely he wouldn't have done that?
But when she ran down into the storeroom, she knew at once that she was wrong. There was no one else in there. And even from the bottom of the ramp, she could feel the cold air seeping in.
The stone had been moved and the secret passage was open.
THEY'D ARRANGED TO LEAVE ROBERT'S HOUSE TOGETHER, at half past one. Tom lay on his bed, fully dressed under his duvet, and waited for the right time to sneak out and meet the other two.
He had no trouble staying awake. He felt as though he would never sleep again. Not now that he knew about the girl under the floor. They must all be in it together—Mr. and Mrs. Armstrong and Warren, too. What were they doing? Why did they keep her there?
His brain made lurid pictures of Mr. Armstrong, blown up to the size of a giant, with the girl standing in the palm of his hand. She stood and stretched, ready to run away, and his fingers closed around her, one by one. Not crushing her, but coming together like bars, to keep her where she was. Tom saw her tiny, pale face peering through the gaps between the fingers—until Mr. Armstrong's other hand moved across in front of it, stroking his curled fist.
You're mine. I'm keeping you safe. I won't let anything hurt you.
It was a terrible picture. Tom couldn't wait to wrestle those fingers open and snatch the girl away. She had to be rescued. If they couldn't get her out themselves, tonight, then they had to call the police. That was clear.
But were their plans good enough? Would they be able to do it?
It felt impossible, and horribly dangerous.
By QUARTER PAST ONE, HIS PARENTS WERE ASLEEP. IT WAS easy to slide out of bed and down the stairs. The only tricky part was getting his bike out of the shed without making a noise. He did it slowly, being supercautious, and that made him late. It was just after half past one when he reached Robert's house.
Robert and Emma were already out on the pavement, a little way down the road. They both had their bikes, and Emma was wearing a bulging backpack. Tom knew what was inside that. They'd made very careful, detailed plans.
The three of them set off across the city, cycling one behind the other, without speaking. The streets in the center were eerily empty, with all the shops shuttered and the office blocks dark and silent.
Even when they reached the development, there was no one on the streets. There were lights in some of the houses, but it was too cold for loitering outside. Tom's fingers were almost numb, and when he touched the bare metal of his handlebars, it stung like fire.
They stopped just before they reached the Armstrongs' street. Robert unzipped Emma's backpack and took out an oilcan. Then he went ahead on his own, leaving Tom and Emma with the bikes.
“He ought to have gone along the embankment,” Emma muttered under her breath. “It's too risky going through all those gardens. There might be dogs. And he's so clumsy.”
Tom thought of Robert creeping along the street. Diving down the side of the nearest house and moving silently from garden to garden. “He'll be fine,” he said reassuringly. “You haven't seen how good he is now. And he's only got to cross a few fences.”
“How long will
Emma was trying to sound brittle and detached. A week ago, Tom would have thought,
Leave him alone, you hag.
But it was different now. He took a random guess, to comfort her.
“He should do it in ten minutes. Easily.”
Emma looked at her watch and nodded briskly. “All right. We'll take a look in ten minutes. Now we'd better be quiet—unless someone comes along. We'll talk then, so we don't look suspicious.”
Yes, ma‘am,
Tom thought. But he didn't say it.
It seemed a long ten minutes, with nothing to do and no talking. Emma looked at her watch a dozen times. After nine and a half minutes, she pushed the bikes at Tom and went to the corner. She came back very quickly, and when she spoke, her voice was shaking.
“The side gate's ajar. You'd better go.”
Until that moment, Tom hadn't thought about leaving her alone in the dark. Suddenly he imagined what it would be like for her, waiting on and on, with nothing to do but look at her watch. “Do you want to go instead of me?” he whispered.
“No!” It was almost too loud for safety. “We have to stick to the plan. Get going.”
“Well—shout if there's anything wrong.” Tom wanted to tell her not to be frightened, but he didn't dare. He just passed the bikes over to her and went quickly and quietly around the corner and into the Armstrongs' street.
It was after two o‘clock now, and all the houses were dark. He hurried down the road, trusting that no one was looking out at him. When he reached the far end, he stepped off the pavement and onto the grass in front of the Armstrongs' house.
Five slow, careful steps took him up to the side gate. He pushed cautiously at it, hoping that Robert had remembered to oil the hinges as well as the bolts. It opened as silently as a gate in a dream, and he stepped through it into the darkness of the back garden.
All the conservatory blinds were pulled shut, but around the edges he could see a glimmer of cold light from the television. The sound was turned down, but he could hear it faintly from outside. There was no sign of Robert, though—and nothing to show whether Warren had turned off the burglar alarm.
Tom's heart was beating so fast that he could hardly breathe. For a second, he was sure that the whole thing was a delusion. How could there be a room under the floor? How could there be a girl hidden down there? It was impossible.
Then he realized that he could hear the television only because the conservatory door was slightly open.
He crept up and put his eye to the opening. In the light from the television, he saw Robert on his knees on the red rug, with the side of his head against the floor. It took Robert a second to realize that Tom was there. When he did, he beckoned vigorously, pointing to his ear and then down at the ground.
Tom knelt down and listened. For a moment the noise of the television distracted him. He put a hand over one ear, to shut it out, and put the other ear against the floor. Through the wood, he heard a faint, high humming. Not a tune, but a long, wordless note that moved unsteadily around the same pitch.
It was true. There really was a girl down there.
Robert put a hand on Tom's arm, pulling him up. He tapped at his watch and then pointed to the television. Tom knew he was right. They had no idea what to expect when they tried to get the girl to move, but it made sense to open up the black room as quickly as possible.
They lifted the television out of the way and then Tom began to roll up the rug, glad of the rehearsed, familiar actions. But this time being quiet was more important than being fast. Robert took his time turning the catches on the lid, and when they were open, he raised the lid very slowly, letting the dim light filter down into the dark space underneath.
There was no humming now. The girl was completely silent.
Robert leaned over, putting his head right down into the hole. Tom heard a short, stifled sound, like someone breathing in quickly.
“Can you see her?” he whispered.
“I think she's up at the far end,” Robert muttered. He sat back and swung his legs into the hole. “I don't want to use the flashlight if I can help it. I think it's better if I go in and get her.”
“Don't frighten her,” Tom whispered. Knowing it was a stupid thing to say. They had no idea how she was going to react to anything.
Robert let himself down into the hole. It was not big enough for him to stand upright. He had to bend over and shuffle forward.
“It's all right,” he said softly. “We're your friends. We've come to rescue you.”
There was a quick shuffling sound. And then another noise.
Robert straightened up, with his head sticking through the hatch. “She just keeps moving backward. I don't want to make her yell. And I can't get her to look at me.”
“Let me try.” Tom stood back to let Robert out and then slid over the edge, into the hole.
It was very dark down there. And cold. And damp. The girl's face was a pale glimmer, in the far corner, where he'd seen her before. She was holding her head in the same way, sideways on to him, with her hands over her mouth.
There was a flashlight in his pocket, and he was tempted to switch it on, but it seemed like too much of a shock. He squatted down, to make himself look smaller and less intimidating, and hunted for something simple and soothing to say. The most obvious sound was the one she had already made herself.
“Shhh,” he said. “Shhh.”
The girl tilted her head slightly, moving her face away from him. But her body leaned closer. He realized that she was turning her ear to catch the sound he made.
He said it again. “Shhh.”
He was rewarded by a turn of her whole body. She twisted around, coming forward on her hands and knees, and presented him with the other ear.
“Shhh,” he said. Was that the only word she understood?
Robert reached through the trapdoor, prodding at his back. “We've got to do something,” he hissed. “We have to get her
The girl's head turned again, and she picked up the last word.
she said. Her voice was very soft, and she spoke in a strange way, moving her tongue around in her mouth so that the word was blurred and strange.
Tom nodded and said it back to her. “Out. Yes?”
She began shuffling toward him, still on all fours, shaking off blankets and pushing them behind her. As she came closer, he was aware of a strong, sweet scent, like powder or cheap soap, with something stronger and sourer underneath it. She moved in very close, the way a small child would, putting her face up to Tom's and moving it around. For a second he thought she must have trouble with her eyes. Then he realized that she was sniffing at him.
BOOK: The Black Room
2.13Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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