Authors: Daniel I. Russell
“What are we going to do?” asked Kerry. “They’ll catch us. I know they’ll catch us!”
“If you’re quiet,” snapped Mario, “maybe we can find a way out. Keep going.” He ignited the flame, glanced around and, happy the duct was clear, snapped the lighter off.
A light clicked on up ahead, shining through the gaps in a grate on the floor.
“Stop!” said Mario, tensed. He held his breath and slowly slid forward.
“What is it?”
Mario approached the grate and peered through, ready to dive back in the dark. The air rising through smelled of smoke and charred wood. It fought with the aromas of cooking from further ahead. Mario neared his face to the slits and gazed down.
Directly below stood a trio of figures before a small, circular stage. Something bulky and misshapen, hidden under a white sheet, squirmed on the platform. The three watched it.
“What is it?” Kerry hissed again.
“There are people down there,” Mario said. “They’re looking at something.”
“Can you see a way out?”
“It’s too dark.”
Below, one of the three, a woman with long, black hair and a tight, red cocktail dress, glanced up, looking directly at Mario. He jumped back, breath caught in his throat.
“Something wrong, madam?” asked a voice.
“No,” she said a moment later. “I must be hearing things.”
Mario waited a few seconds and leaned forwards again. Through the grate, he saw the woman had returned to studying the moving sheet. Her companion, a short, fat and younger man, stared at the thing on the stage. He hadn’t moved an inch.
“What are they doing?” asked Kerry. “Why aren’t we moving?”
Mario swallowed. “Just wait for them to go. They might hear us.”
The third member of the group stepped forwards and approached the small stage. Mario recognised the maroon jacket and realised the man was another guide. Appearing to be in his twenties, his greasy hair hung over one eye and reached halfway across his cheek. The uncovered portion of his face lay riddled with spots.
“And so the time has come,” he said, directed at the chubby guy, “for debts to be repaid.” He grabbed the edge of the sheet and pulled.
“What’s happening?” whispered Kerry.
“Shut up!” said Mario, his voice still hushed. “You want them to hear us?”
The three below seemed to be interested in that on the stage. Bound to a chair by thick rope, sat a man of around twenty in Calvin Klein boxer shorts. A black strap held a black ball in his open mouth. A ring twinkled in his right ear, under a very short crew-cut hairstyle, into which zigzags had been shaved. This hadn’t been done by someone at Metus House, Mario thought, as they appeared too neat and precise. This was the work of a salon. Tribal design tattoos littered the prisoner’s body.
The guide grinned. “Your brother, sir.”
The fat man slowly nodded. “So it is.”
“And he’s brought some friends along to play…”
On his words, more lights slammed on around the perimeter of the room.
Mario leaned closer to the grate, searching for a door in the room below. When the three people left, he planned to knock out the grate, drop down and slip out. He and Kerry hadn’t been found yet. They might be able to wait…
But there’s no door! There’s no damn door! There’s only…
The things beneath the lights drew his attention.
No. What the…?
Six naked women, three on either side of the stage, rested on all fours, chained to short pedestals. Masks had been strapped to their faces and each displayed a crude rendition of a face with heavy makeup. Some of the women fought in vain against their chains. Others stayed still, accepting their fate or waiting for a chance to escape. Only their mouths were visible through holes in the masks.
“Here at Metus,” said the guide, “we like to give our guests what they want.” He stroked the cropped hair of the captive, who tried to turn his head away. “Even those that don’t want to be here, right sir?” He slapped the man on the head and grinned. “These women…” He gestured around the room. “Past loves, past alliances, past…heartbreaks. He destroyed every one of these chances for happiness, didn’t he, sir?”
Fat man nodded again, his head hanging low.
“Yes,” the guide continued. “He destroyed each one in his arrogance and…,” his grin widened, “animal hunger.”
“He got inside every one of them,” the chubby man said. “He couldn’t leave them alone because they were
. Each one. He couldn’t stay out of them.”
“Exactly,” said the guide. “It’s what he wants. What he always wants. And he shall do it again.”
He reached into his jacket and removed something long and thin. It glinted silver like a giant needle.
Mario realised the guide held two objects as he separated and lifted them.
“Shit,” Mario muttered, staring at the knife and fork. Their elongated handles reminded him of barbecue utensils.
The man in the chair shook his head in violent protest.
“This time,” said the guide. “Let’s
him get inside them.”
Mario swallowed. “Come on,” he whispered. “We’re going.”
“Good,” said Kerry. She had crawled up right behind him, probably trying to have a look through the grate herself. “They…they must be looking for us by now.”
Almost in response, shouts echoed down the duct from behind them.
Mario looked at Kerry, but she belonged to the dark. “Come on then. Don’t look.”
A final, car-crash glance through the grate revealed the plump man hunched between his brother’s open legs. A flash of silver, and the bound man arched his back, screaming behind the ball.
Mario hurried on, hands and knees striking the metal beneath. He hoped the victim’s suffering would drown out the sounds of their escape. He plunged onwards through the shadows.
He halted. “Kerry?”
A look back showed Kerry by the grate. The slits of light seemed to carve her face like a photo-fit.
She wailed, coughed and quickly shuffled away.
“I told you not to look,” said Mario, continuing along the duct.
Another shout rang out behind them. They quickened their pace.
The smells of succulent roast chicken, rich vanilla and various other tantalising aromas intensified. Mario’s stomach grumbled, sounding loud as thunder.
“I’m hungry,” said Kerry. “Feels like we’ve been in this house for days. It’s like…it’s like they know what makes us suffer.”
“Or maybe they’re trying to flush us out,” said Mario, thinking aloud. He reached a second grate. In the kitchen beneath, cooks seemed to dance around each other holding steaming vats of tomato soup, stacks of plates and sizzling griddles. One young man in checked trousers and a white jacket chopped and sliced meat with the skill of Jack the Ripper. A muscular man with receding blonde hair barked orders and stormed around the room, inspecting and directing.
“Quite a party,” said Mario and continued to crawl. His heart pumped a little harder, and his hands trembled on the cold metal.
How many guests would all that food cater for? Hundreds?
His eyes widened.
What if it’s for the staff? We might never get out.
Something hard, possibly the top of Kerry’s head, struck him in the right buttock, and he realised he’d stopped dead.
“Ow,” she said. “Oh…damn it!”
Hearing the tremble in her voice, Mario pressed on, determined to keep her moving. “Sorry,” he whispered.
Ahead lay the perfect dark. Mario struck a flame from the lighter and held it up.
“This thing seems to go on for miles,” he said. “You don’t think…”
“Think what?” said Kerry, her voice high, sounding worried.
Mario paused, trying to sweep his muddled thoughts aside, like a swarm of flies. Stubborn, they buzzed back, darting and zigzagging through his mind.
“You’ve stopped again,” said Kerry.
“Sorry,” said Mario and resumed the slow progress. “I think we may have been checkmated.”
Kerry panted. “What?”
“We may have been played again,” said Mario, out of breath himself. “We might be being chased. This duct goes on and on. It just feels so…” He puffed. “It feels like a trap.”
Kerry scrambled along.
“We can’t stop here,” she said. “Have to keep moving.”
Mario swept the lighter from side to side, revealing more of the rusty duct. No sudden drops. He thought the management of Metus House would opt for something a little more imaginative than a mere pitfall. Perhaps the walls would slide closed, crushing them to death, or spikes shooting from the ceiling, impaling them. He shivered.
The duct suddenly ended at another grate, wider then the others.
Mario frowned. The grate blocked their escape, but the discovery seemed better then crawling forever. The duct was real. It showed a limit.
Maybe they don’t know where we are.
“Quick,” he said, and hurried to the end of the duct.
The grate sat about a metre squared; easily enough room to squeeze through.
Only if it opens.
Mario reached it and, placing the lighter on the floor within reach, pressed his palms against the grating, his fingers slipping through the slits. He gripped the bars and pulled. The grate barely moved.
“What?” Kerry whispered.
Mario pushed, and the metal budged. He rattled it through the inch of give.
“It’s locked,” he said. “I think.” He strained his shoulders. The grate rewarded him with a squeal of release.
He growled through clenched teeth and pushed even harder. The grate resisted for a hard inch before swinging open all the way. Mario fell forward, landing on his hands.
A smell like decaying food seemed to hit him in the face. He coughed.
“It’s open,” he said and spat to the side, tasting the foul air. He picked up the lighter and struck a flame.
Beyond the end of the duct, darkness swallowed the end of the tunnel, like it led to the very centre of the earth. Mario shuffled forwards, holding the lighter aloft. It did nothing to shift the deep black.
He swallowed. “Looks like we have no choice. You with me on this?”
A distant crash sounded from behind, like someone had jumped down at the opposite end of the duct. Someone heavy…someone big…
“Yes,” said Kerry before the echoes had died. “Quickly.”
Mario extinguished the flame and hooked his fingers around the edge of the opening. He pulled his upper body through and sweeping his arm through the air, found the floor a short distance beneath.
“We’re good,” he said and eased through. He dropped to the floor and slowly stood, careful with his head. With no sign of the ceiling, he stretched his back and legs, squeezing out the threatening cramps. He used the lighter to cast a small patch of light, and helped Kerry through the grate. The golden flicker reflected in her eyes. The moment she stood, he released his finger from the gas, plunging them both into darkness.
“Where are we?” she said.
Another crash resonated from the duct, and Mario stepped towards the sound. He pushed the grate closed. Although unlocked, the stiff door would screech when opened again. Mario wanted the warning.
“It stinks in here,” Kerry whispered, gasping. “What is this?” Mario felt her touch his arm, and she quickly latched on. “Where are we now?”
“I don’t know,” he said, a little too sharp. He closed his eyes, and the view remained the same. He opened them again. Holding in a deep breath of the rotting stench, he blew it out slowly, calming his thumping heart. “We should find out instead of standing around asking questions.” He reached towards the wall, or at least, where he thought it stood.
“Mario?” Kerry’s grip tightened.
“Stay with me then. I’ll move slower.”
His outstretched fingers, probing the darkness, touched upon the cool surface of the wall. He swept his hand across and pulled away.
“It’s wet,” he said, rubbing slime between thumb and fingertips, “sticky even.”
“Turn on the flame.”
Mario raised the lighter and stopped.
“Wait. There can’t be much gas left. We should save it.”
Somehow Kerry’s grip tightened like a giant pincer, and fingernails dug into Mario’s skin.
“Anything or anyone could be in here with us,” she said, hushed and urgent. “We need to know!”
“Okay,” he said, trying to shrug free.
Kerry clung on.
Hand shaking, Mario raised the lighter and ignited it. The flame leapt up.
Black, as if a fire had ravaged the room, the wall glistened in the sudden light. A thick, viscous substance coated the bare bricks like saliva.
Mario brought his hand close to his face and sniffed.
“Odd. Whatever this stuff is, it isn’t causing the smell.”
“Forget the smell,” hissed Kerry. “Just get us out of here!”
Mario nodded and wiped the gunk on the front of his shirt.
The glow of the flame revealed more wall, and they carefully walked along it. The slime covered every inch of the soot-stained brick, as if giant slugs had taken residence in the burnt out shell and marked it as their own, coating it with mucus trails to state their territory.
“Look,” said Mario, stopping and lowering the lighter.
The wall opened up in an oval hole, its lowest edge at floor level. The hole reached as high as Mario’s knees.
“Think we can fit through?” said Kerry.
“We don’t know where it goes yet.” Mario crouched before the opening and studied it closer. “It’s too narrow. Too narrow for me, anyway.”
He extended his arm and held the lighter inside. More slime coated the inside of the hole, which led away in a tunnel, like a burrow. The light penetrated a few metres in.
“I can’t see anything. Maybe if-"
The flame guttered out.
“Mario?” cried Kerry.
“Shit! Shit! Shit! The fucking thing burnt me.”
Kerry sighed in the dark. “I thought something had come out the hole and grabbed you,” she said. “Where’s the lighter?”
Mario squeezed his fists. “I dropped it.”