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Authors: Gillian Cross

The Black Room (9 page)

BOOK: The Black Room
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Lorn was left on her own in the dark. She took a long, deep breath. Then—once she was sure that no one could see her—she stepped through the break in the wall, into the empty tunnel beyond.
She could feel it stretching left and right, going off into the distance. It was a huge space, bigger than anything they could have dug on their own. The creature that had made it must be vast and dangerous, and she knew she ought to be afraid. But she wasn't. Instead, she felt something strange and irrational drawing her on, like a voice calling to her.
Come in. Come deepes: You're safe down here....
She didn't want to wall off the tunnel. She wanted to explore it.
She listened for a second, to make certain that no one was coming. Then she took another step down the tunnel. And another and another. Concentrating on the feel of the air and the soft sound of her feet on the bare earth. Her mind picked up sounds and smells, sorting them into the complex, intricate patterns they made and building a model of the space around her.
Now she could tell that there was more than one tunnel. More than two. She clicked her tongue against the roof of her mouth and heard the sound go off in all directions. Where did the tunnels lead? How many were there? ...
She couldn't untangle the pattern without moving farther in. Something strange and familiar tugged at her mind, and she took another step....
Patterns in the dark... Three and four and five.
More...
Over,
under; over; over; under:
Flat and round and square ...
Each one different ...
It wasn't a picture in her mind and it wasn't a voice. But there was something.... if only she could catch hold of it.... Some sharp, inexplicable impression. She reached out toward it—
—and then Bando called from the ramp.
“Lorn! Lorn! Dess and Ab are coming—with lots of stones! We can start the wall now!”
Lorn's mind came floating back from somewhere far away.
I don't want to build a wall. I want to keep the way open and explore.
But she couldn't do that. The others wouldn't let her, and she'd never be able to persuade them.
“Lorn! Are you there?”
She turned quickly and walked back through the hole, shouting an answer to Bando. “Yes, I'm here. Bring the stones across and we'll get going!”
 
SHE MEANT TO BUILD A PROPER, SOLID WALL. ONE THAT blocked the hole completely. And she would have done it—if Bando hadn't started by making a mistake.
He came across from the ramp with two big stones in his arms. Even he was staggering under their weight, and when Lorn told him to put them down, he dropped them so quickly that she had to jump backward to avoid them.
“Be careful!” she said. “You nearly squashed my toes.”
She didn't speak sharply, but Bando was horrified. “Did I hurt you? I didn't mean to hurt you, Lorn! I'm very, very sorry. Are you all right?”
He was still apologizing when Shang shouted from the ramp, with the next load of stones. Lorn sent Bando straight off to fetch them, to get him thinking about something else.
It was only when he'd gone that she realized there was a space between the two stones he'd dropped.
Quite a big space. Big enough for me to crawl through....
The thought was there before she could stop it, shocking and enticing. She tried to blot it out, but she was too late. The idea had formed in her mind. If she left the stones where they were, she could make a secret passage through the wall.
It wouldn't be right, of course. It would mean deceiving the others. She couldn't possibly do it.
But if she did, no one would ever know. Bando would put the rest of the stones exactly where she told him, without asking questions. And by the time the others came down to look at the wall, the opening could be hidden behind a loose stone. Everyone would feel safe—and she would be free to explore the tunnels whenever she wanted to.
But she couldn't do it. Of course she couldn't....
 
SHE REALLY DIDN'T MEAN TO MAKE A SECRET PASSAGE. But somehow she found herself leaving that tempting space exactly as it was. Every time Bando brought more stones, she guided him toward the other end of the wall—until it was almost as tall as she was, and she knew that she would have to level it off soon.
And then Bando picked another stone off the ramp—and called out gleefully, “This one's
huge!”
His voice echoed off the stone, and it threw a long, dark shadow behind him as he hoisted it onto his shoulder. Lorn felt the shape of that stone inside her head, as though she'd already touched it. It was wide and flat and very long.
Long enough to bridge the gap between the other two stones.
Quickly and quietly, she moved along the wall, back to the low end. “Bring it this way,” she called back. “Over here.”
Bando blundered through the darkness, breathing heavily under the weight of the stone. When he reached her, Lorn slid her fingers around his huge hands and guided them into the right position.
“Put it here. That's right. On top of these two.”
Bando hesitated. “It feels as though there's a gap,” he said doubtfully.
“Don't worry about that.” Lorn loosened his fingers so that the stone dropped into place. “It's not very big. We can fill it up with small stuff later on.”
That was all it took. He went for the next load of stones without asking any more questions, and Lorn knew that he would forget all about it in a couple of minutes.
As soon as he'd gone, she knelt down and slid her hands into the space between the stones. Her fingers spread out to fit it, instinctively, as if they knew the shape.
Yes,
she thought. That's how it should
be‘.
It was exactly the right width. All she needed to do was scrape down a little way into the earth, to make it deeper. She worked at the soil between the stones, her hands moving confidently as she scooped it out.
By the time Bando came back with the next lot of stones, she had finished. She stood up and talked him across the storeroom, not thinking about what she'd just been doing. Her mind moved on, planning how to use the next lot of stones—and the next and the next and the next—to make a strong, impenetrable wall. A barrier that nothing could cross.
Except the person who knew about the secret passage winding through it, like the hidden strand of hair in a twelve-strand braid. The strand that was almost invisible, unless your fingers knew how to find it in the dark....
11
“OPEN THE BAG!” ROBERT SAID, CALLING TO TOM AS HE ran back across the parking lot. “There might be an address inside.”
Tom pulled the zipper open, but he wasn't quick enough for Robert. Before he had a chance to look in the bag, it was wrenched away from him. Robert knelt down and dumped it on the ground, rummaging through it with both hands.
There wasn't much to look at. But on the bottom—under a neatly folded raincoat and three glossy computer magazines—was an empty wallet, with a name and address card in the plastic pocket inside.
Robert pulled it out and sat back on his heels. “Warren Armstrong,” he said. Experimentally.
Tom looked over his shoulder. “Is that the right surname? For Lorn?”
“How would I know?” Robert shrugged. “People have different names in the cavern.”
He said it as though it should have been obvious. Tom was irritated.
“Why
do they have different names?”
“Because they are different,” Robert said impatiently. “Because it's not allowed to remember what happened before. Because—oh, what does it matter?” He frowned down at the card he was holding. “Where's Charrington Close?”
Tom shrugged. “Search me.”
“I'd better find a street map.” Robert scrambled up and slung the bag over his shoulder.
“You're not going there?” Tom said. “What about that man?
“He's only a
man.
I'm not going to be afraid of him, am I? Not after facing a hedge-tiger.”
What's a hedge-tiger?
Tom thought. But he didn't bother to ask. He'd only get another annoying non-answer.
“Men can be dangerous, too,” Tom said. “That man is—” But he couldn't explain the feeling he had about him. He wasn't dangerous like a wild animal, all teeth and claws. It was a different kind of danger. Weird and disturbing.
Robert wasn't listening, anyway. He'd already set off back to the square. By the time Tom caught up, he was in the bookshop, poring over a street map of the city.
Tom peered down at the page, trying to read the names upside down. “Have you found it?”
“It's somewhere in this part of the map.” Robert pointed without looking up. “One of the little streets in this development up here.”
Tom found it first. It was right at the top of the page, on the edge of the city. Directly under the double blue line that showed where the highway ran. He reached over and put his finger on it. “Must be noisy up there.”
“Good for buses, though. There's bound to be one that goes up there. It's a really big development.” Robert put the book back on the shelf and headed for the door. He was almost through it before he looked back for Tom. “You coming, Tosh?”
No, Tom wanted to say. Not there. But he didn't. He nodded and followed Robert down the hill to the bus station.
The bus took the main road going north out of the city. It plunged downhill and then up again, and on the right, the development ran all the way up to the highway embankment. Tom could see the cheap little houses laid out on the slope ahead. It was just starting to get dark, and the streetlamps came on as he watched, marking out a maze of twisting, interconnected roads.
Just before the highway, the bus swung across the road, turning right into the development. Robert put his face against the window, counting the left turns as they passed them. When they reached the third one, he stood up and rang the bell, grabbing Tom's arm with one hand and the sports bag with the other.
“That's it. Come on.”
They jumped off the bus as soon as it reached the next stop and headed back to the little dead-end street. It was very short, with half a dozen houses on each side and an odd one squeezed in at the end. The extra house had an awkward, uncomfortable look, as though it had been crammed into a leftover plot of land. It faced straight down the street, blocking off the end, and the highway embankment loomed close behind it, topped by high fences to close off the traffic.
Tall cypress hedges ran down each side of the little front garden, continuing past the house and on into the back, and the house sat in a dark gap between two streetlamps. All its curtains were drawn, and there was only one dim light showing, in the window over the front door.
“Bet that's the house,” said Tom.
“You're only guessing,” Robert said.
He began to walk down the street, stopping at each house to check its number. But he needn't have bothered. Tom was right. When they'd counted carefully, all down the road, number fourteen turned out to be the odd house at the end.
“I'll knock on the door,” Robert said. “And pretend I found the bag, lying around somewhere. You'd better keep out of sight, in case he recognizes you.” He marched up the path and rang the doorbell.
Tom stepped back, so that the cypress hedge on the left of the garden shielded him. Now that it was almost dark, the hedge hid him completely, but he could peer through the branches and see the house, with Robert at the front door.
Behind the blank, curtained windows, everything was very still. Robert rang the bell again. Tom saw a sudden brightness as one of the upstairs curtains twitched. Then the front door opened.
It was the man. He didn't say anything. He just stood in the doorway, waiting.
Robert cleared his throat. “Mr. Armstrong?”
The man bent his head, acknowledging the name.
Robert held out the sports bag. Tom couldn't quite catch what Robert said, but he was obviously explaining how he'd found it. Whatever he said, it didn't make any visible impression on Mr. Armstrong. He stood there, listening impassively, and then held out his hand for the bag. It looked as if he might take it and shut the door in Robert's face without saying anything at all.
But Robert wasn't going to be put off so easily. “There's one other thing,” he said, raising his voice and keeping a tight hold on the bag. “Can you tell me—?”
The man in the doorway stiffened and drew back. It was only a slight movement. Robert probably hadn't noticed it at all. But Tom saw it, watching from behind the hedge. Mr. Armstrong looked... offended.
“It's not anything important,” Robert said in a false, cheerful voice. “It's just that I couldn't help noticing this plait, and I wondered how it was made. I'm really interested in crafts like that, but I can't figure it out.”
Mr. Armstrong's eyes narrowed, and he spoke for the first time, opening his mouth just wide enough to let out the words. “I don't know anything about it.”
Robert tried again. “I know it's not important. But I'd love to find out about it. Who made it? Was it your daughter?”
“I haven't got a daughter,” Mr. Armstrong said. His voice and his face were completely expressionless. “But I have got work to do. Thank you for bringing this back.”
His hand shot toward the bag. He snatched it out of Robert's hands and shut the door in his face. For a second, Robert was obviously too startled to react at all. Then he reached up and rang the doorbell again.
Nothing happened.
BOOK: The Black Room
3.74Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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