‘All right, all right!’ Sergeant Scott noisily submitted. ‘So you’re lost. You’re staying with your dad here in the city at a hotel—you went sightseeing and you got separated—I accept all that. But look, son, we’ve had lost kids in here before, often, and they didn’t try on all this silly stuff about names and spellings and all!‘
Sergeant Scott had known—had been instinctively ‘aware’ all day—that this was going to be one of those shifts. Right up until ten minutes ago his intuition had seemed for once to have let him down. But now…
‘It’s true,’ the pallid, red-eyed nine-year-old insisted, hysteria in his voice. ‘It’s all true, everything I’ve said. This town looks like Mondon— but it’s not! And…and before I came in here I passed a store called Woolworths—but it should have been “Wolwords”!‘
‘All right, let’s not start that again.’ The policeman put up quieting hands. ‘Now: you say you came down with your father from…from Sunderpool? That’s in England?‘
‘No, I’ve told you,’ the kid started to cry again. ‘It’s “Eenland!” We came down on holiday from Sunderpool by longcar, and—’
‘Longcar?’ Sergeant Scott cut in, frowning. ‘Is that some place on the north-east coast?’
‘No, it’s not a place! A longcar is…well, a longcar! Like a buzz but longer, and it goes on the longcar lanes. You know…?’ The boy looked as puzzled as Sergeant Scott, to say nothing of accusing.
‘No, I don’t know!’ The policeman shook his head, trying to control his frown. ‘A “buzz”?’ Scott could feel the first twinges of one of his bilious headaches coming on, and so decided to change the subject.
‘What does your father do, son? He’s a science-fiction writer, eh?— And you’re next in a long line?’
’Dad’s a snarker,’ the answer came quite spontaneously, without any visible attempt at deceit or even flippancy. In any case, the boy was obviously far too worried to be flippant. A ‘nut,’ Scott decided—but nevertheless a nut in trouble.
Now the kid had an inquisitive look on his face. ‘What’s science fiction?’ he asked.
‘Science fiction,’ the big sergeant answered with feeling, ‘is that part of a policeman’s lot called “desk-duty”—when crazy lost kids walk into the station in tears to mess up said policeman’s life!‘
His answer set the youngster off worse than before.
Sighing, Scott passed his handkerchief across the desk and stood up. He called out to a constable in an adjacent room:
‘Hey, Bob, come and look after the desk until Sergeant Healey gets in, will you? He’s due on duty in the next ten minutes or so. I’ll take the kid and see if I can find his father. If I can’t—well, I’ll bring the boy back here and the job can go through the usual channels.‘
‘All right, Sergeant, I’ll watch the shop,’ the constable agreed as he came into the duty-room and took his place at the desk. ‘I’ve been listening to your conversation! Right rum ’un that,’ he grinned, nodding towards the tearful boy. ‘What an imagination!’
Imagination, yes. And yet Scott was not quite sure. There was ‘something in the air,’ a feeling of impending—strangeness—hard to define.
‘Come on, son,’ he said, shaking off his mood. ‘Let’s go.’
He took the boy’s hand. ‘Let’s see if we can find your dad. He’s probably rushing about right now wondering what's become of you.’ He shook his head in feigned defeat and said: ‘I don’t know—ten o‘clock at night, just going off duty—and you have to walk in on me!‘
’Ten o’clock—already? The boy looked up into Scott’s face with eyes wider and more frightened than ever. ‘Then we only have half an hour!’
‘Eh?’ the policeman frowned again as they passed out into the London street (or was it ‘mondon,’- Scott wondered with a mental grin). ‘Half an hour? What happens at half past ten, son? Do you turn into a pumpkin or something?’ His humour was lost on his small charge.
‘I mean the lights!’ the boy answered, in what Scott took to be exasperation. ‘that’s when the lights go out. At half past ten they put the lights out.‘
‘They do?’ the sergeant had given up trying to penetrate the boy’s fertile but decidedly warped imagination. ‘Why’s that, I wonder?’ (Let the kid ramble on; it was better than tears at any rate.)
‘Don’t you know anything?’ the youngster seemed half-astonished, half-unbelieving, almost as if he thought Scott was pulling his leg.
‘No,’ the sergeant returned, ‘I’m just a stupid copper! But come on—where did you give your father the slip? You said you passed Woolworths getting to the police station. Well, Woolworths is down this way, near the tube.’ He looked at the boy sharply in mistaken understanding. ‘You didn’t get lost on the tube, did you? Lots of kids do when it’s busy.’
’The Tube?’ Scott sensed that the youngster spoke the words in capitals—and yet it was only a whisper. He had to hold on tight as the boy strained away from him in something akin to horror. ‘No one goes down in the Tube any more, except—’ He shuddered.
‘Yes?’ Scott pressed, interested in this particular part of the boy’s fantasy despite himself and the need, now, to have done with what would normally be a routine job. ‘Except who?’
‘Not who,’ the boy told him, clutching his hand tighter. ‘Not who, but—’
‘But?’ again, patiently, Scott prompted him.
‘Not who but what!‘
‘Well, go on,’ said the sergeant, sighing, leading the way down the quiet, half-deserted street towards Woolworths. ‘What, er, goes down in the tube?’
‘Why, Tubers, of course!’ Again there was astonishment in the youngster’s voice, amazement at Scott’s obvious deficiency in general knowledge. ‘Aren’t you Mondoners thick!’ It was a statement of fact, not a question.
‘Right,’ said Scott, not bothering to pursue the matter further, seeing the pointlessness of questioning an idiot. ‘We’ve passed Woolworths—now where?’
‘Over there, I think, down that street. Yes!—that’s where I lost my father—down there!’
‘Come on,’ Scott said, leading the boy across the road, empty now of all but the occasional car, down into the entrance of the indicated street. In fact it was little more than an alley, dirty and unlighted. ‘What on earth were you doing down here in the first place?’
‘We weren’t down here,’ the youngster answered with a logic that made the sergeant’s head spin. ‘We were in a bright street, with lots of lights. Then I felt a funny buzzing feeling, and…and then I was here! I got frightened and ran.’
At that moment, their footsteps echoing hollowly on the cobbles of the alley, the sergeant felt a weird vibration that began in his feet and travelled up his body to his head, causing a burst of bright, painfully bilious stars to flash across his vision—and simultaneous with this peculiar sensation the two turned a corner to emerge with startling abruptness into a much brighter side street.
‘That was the buzzing I told you about,’ the boy stated unnecessarily.
Scott was not listening. He was looking behind him for the broken electric cable he felt sure must be lying there just inside the alley (the sensation must surely have been caused by a mild electric shock), but he couldn’t see one. Nor could he see anything else that might have explained that tingling, nerve-rasping sensation he had known. For that matter, where was the entrance (or exit) from which he and the boy had just this second emerged?
Where was the alley?
Where was the alley
‘Dad!’ the kid yelled, suddenly tugging himself free to go racing off down the street.
Scott stood and watched, his head starting to throb and the street lights flaring garishly before his eyes. At the boy’s cry a lone man had turned, started to run, and now Scott saw him sweep the lad up in his arms and wildly hug him, intense and obvious relief showing in his face.
The policeman forgot the problem of the vanishing alley and walked up to them, hands behind his back in the approved fashion, smiling benignly. ‘Cute lad you’ve got there, sir—but I should curb his imagination if I were you. Why, he’s been telling me a story fit to—’
Then the benign smile slid from his face. ‘Here!’ he cried, his jaw dropping in astonishment.
But despite his exclamation, Scott was nevertheless left standing on his own. For without a word of thanks both man and boy had made off down the street, hands linked, running as if the devil himself was after them!
‘Here!’ the policeman called again, louder. ‘Hold on a bit—’
For a moment the pair stopped and turned, then the man glanced at his watch (reminding Scott curiously of the White Rabbit in Alice in Wonderland) before picking up the boy again and holding him close. ‘Get off the street!’ he yelled back at Scott as he once more started to run. ‘Get off the streets, man.’ His white face glanced back and up at the street lights as he ran, and Scott saw absolute fear shining in his eyes. ‘It’ll soon be half past ten!’
The policeman was still in the same position, his jaw hanging slack, some seconds later when the figure of the unknown man, again hugging the boy to him, vanished round a distant corner. Then he shrugged his shoulders and tried to pull himself together, setting his helmet more firmly on his aching head.
‘Well I’ll be—’ He grinned nervously through the throb of his headache. ‘Snarker’s son, indeed!’
Alone, now, Scott's feeling of impending—something—returned, and he noticed suddenly just how deserted the street was. He had never known London so quiet before. Why, there wasn’t a single soul in sight!
And a funny thing, but here he was, only a stone’s throw from his station, where he’d worked for the last fifteen years of his life, and yet— damned if he could recognise the street! Well, he knew he’d brought the boy down a dark, cobbled alley from the right, and so …
He took the first street on the right, walking quickly down it until he hit another street he knew somewhat better—
—Or did he?
Yes, yes, of course he did. The street was deserted now, quite empty, but just over there was good old …
Good old Wolwords!
Lights blazed and burst into multicoloured sparks before Scott’s bilious eyes. His mind spun wildly. He grabbed hold of a lamp-post to steady himself and tried to think the thing out properly.
It must be a new building, that place—yes, that had to be the answer. He’d been doing a lot of desk-duties lately, after all. It was quite possible, what with new techniques and the speed of modern building, that the store had been put up in just a few weeks.
The place didn’t look any too new, though …
Scott’s condition rapidly grew worse—understandably in the circumstances, he believed—but there was a tube station, nearby. He decided to take a train home. He usually walked the mile or so to his flat, the exercise did him good; but tonight he would take a train, give himself a rest.
He went dizzily down one flight of steps, barely noticing the absence of posters and the unkempt, dirty condition of the underground. Then, as he turned a corner, he came face-to-face with a strange legend, dripping in red paint on the tiled wall:
ROT THE TUBERS!
Deep creases furrowed the sergeant’s forehead as he walked on, his footsteps ringing hollowly in the grimy, empty corridors, but his headache just wouldn’t let him think clearly.
Tubers, indeed! What the hell—Tubers…?
Down another flight of steps he went, to the deserted ticket booths, where he paused to stare in disbelief at the naked walls of the place and the dirt- and refuse-littered floor. For the first time he really saw the condition of the place. What had happened here? Where was everyone?
From beyond the turnstiles he heard the rumble of a distant train and the spell lifted a little. He hurried forward then, past the empty booths and through the unguarded turnstiles, dizzily down one more flight of concrete steps, under an arch and out on to an empty platform. Not even a drunk or a tramp shared the place with him. The neons flared hideously, and he put out a hand against the naked wall for support.
Again, through the blinding flashes of light in his head, he noticed the absence of posters: the employment agencies, the pretty girls in lingerie, the film and play adverts, spectacular films and avant-garde productions—where in hell were they all?
Then, as for the first time he truly felt upon his spine the chill fingers of a slithering horror, there came the rumble and blast of air that announced the imminent arrival of a train—and he smelled the rushing reek of that which most certainly was not a train!
Even as he staggered to and fro on the unkempt platform, reeling under the fetid blast that engulfed him, the Tuber rushed from out its black hole—a Thing of crimson viscosity and rhythmically flickering cilia.
Sergeant Scott gave a wild shriek as a rushing feeler swept him from the platform and into the soft, hurtling plasticity of the thing—another shriek as he was whisked away into the deep tunnel and down into the bowels of the earth. And seconds later the minute hand of the clock above the empty, shuddering platform clicked down into the vertical position.
Ten-thirty—and all over Mondon, indeed throughout the length and breadth of Eenland, the lights went out.
Copyright © 2001 by Brian Lumley