Jack hated these rural jobs. The homes were overpriced, took forever to reach, and the owners were difficult to work with. The commission was good, which made the trek worth it. Or so he told himself. Nevermind that his phone’s GPS had gotten him lost several times on the way here. It didn’t help that sign for that last turn was covered by a massive tree that looked practically prehistoric. Still, he made it. The gravel crunched as he brought his expensive leased car to a stop. He was already late, and he fumbled with the keys as he rushed to the door. He dropped them after trying the second key and cursed. A few clinks later and Jack finally got the door open. All the lights had been left on, despite it being the middle of the day. At least the owners could follow simple instructions. Jack smoothed his hair, cut according to GQ’s latest trends. He pulled out his massive smartphone, thankful he could actually get data out here, and made the video call. It only took a few rings for the couple to answer. “I’m so terribly sorry for the delay,” Jack began, “you know how it is when you get caught up at the office!”
“Oh don’t worry about it!” Bridget said. She was middle-aged, blonde, with the kind of looks that made men twist their wedding bands anxiously at community barbecues. “I’m so excited! I can’t wait to finally get a look at the place. I’m so sorry we couldn’t get out there.”
“Hard to get around this time of year. Lots of clients.” Her husband Daniel chimed in with that tone that made Jack’s skin crawl. He was all close-cropped hair and frown lines, wrapped in an off-the-rack suit. The man thought he’d learned everything he needed to know, only because he was nearly thirty years Jack’s senior. Jack had given up on explaining things to him.
“I can understand! It’s why my firm specializes in these virtual visits. It’s just more convenient for everybody.” Jack said.
“Enough with the pitch, son. Show us the damn place, already.” Daniel replied.
“You got it.” Jack said with a smile as he crossed the entrance. There was an immediate creak in the floorboards. “Now as you know, this home has a rich history. It’s nearly a hundred years old, owned by three generations of the same family. Not many were built in this style, and you rarely find one so well taken care of.” He tapped a button on his screen, and switched the feed to the phone’s back camera. He dropped the smile, but kept the energy in his voice. “Take a good look at this entryway. You don’t get space like this in modern homes.” The wooden floors were smooth, like they’d just been redone. They creaked every other step, but Jack had heard much worse. He’d seen houses from the 70’s in worse shape than this manor. The hall was spacious, with a lovely oak staircase that swept up to the second floor. It was beautifully stained with a dark colour that gave it a more modern edge.
“I love that staircase.” Bridget said. Jack could still see her face, even while using the rear camera, and she looked positively enamored.
“Hmm, a bit showy, I think.” Daniel said.
“A very common look for homes of this era.” Jack said, passing by the staircase and entering the living room. “Take a look at these.” Jack pointed the phone at the huge windows that took up most of the walls. “See all the light just streaming in?” The living room was barely furnished, just enough to suggest that it was a living space. The owners had several old, strange pieces they kept here, and Jack had made sure to ask they were moved elsewhere. There was less personality to the room now. Just how it needed to be.
“This would be great for the book club! Oh and imagine the view in winter, with the snow all over the trees?” Bridget said, turning to her husband.
“Speaking of snow, that’s a long driveway. Getting someone to plow that’s got to be expensive.” Daniel griped again.
“Alright, how about we get a look at that kitchen? Let me tell you, I would kill for that kind of counter space.” Jack said.
“Actually,” Bridget said, “we’d love to see the upstairs.”
“Well, that can be arranged.” Jack said, forcing a friendly tone. This seriously disrupted the plan, but the customer was always right.
Bridget loved the master bedroom, just as Jack had expected. It looked like it had been pulled out of a Victoriandrama. Where Daniel could only see easily marked floors and poorly insulated windows, Bridget could really appreciate its beauty. As for Daniel, Jack had something up his sleeve. “Now I’m sure this room will have you awed, Daniel.” Jack said. The man seemed unconvinced. Jack pushed the heavy wooden door open and was greeted by the smell of old tomes and pipe smoke. It nauseated him, but he knew that men in Daniel’s age range lived for that sort of thing. The room was huge, easily one of the largest in the house. At its centre was a massive mahogany table, stained a deep red. A high-backed leather chair was tucked against it. The walls were covered in bookshelves that stretched to the ceiling. They were packed with wildly different books, in varying degrees of wear. A small table took up one corner of the room, holding shimmering decanters. Jack turned, giving his phone time to capture the entirety of the study. It was all a bit old-school for his tastes, but he knew Daniel would go crazy for it. “Look at how rich this wood is.” Jack said, getting closer to one of the bookshelves.
“I do have to admit, it’s a beautiful study.” Daniel said.
“I haven’t even told you the best part. The owners have agreed to leave this room entirely furnished, including the books. Apparently some of these date back to the mid-nineteenth century!” Jack replied.
“Going through this brobdingnagian collection will take time I don’t have.” Daniel huffed, his tone all business. Jack bit the inside of his lip. Something moved behind him with a thunk.
“What’s that sound, Jack?” Bridget said. Jack looked over his shoulder, careful not to swing the phone around. A four foot section of the bookshelf was moving back into the wall. It then slid aside until it was entirely swallowed up by the rest of the shelving. It revealed a dark iron door. The ornamentation on it was old, even compared to the house. It was covered in writing he didn’t recognize.
“Uh, don’t worry. Just the house settling.” Jack said.
“You’re a terrible liar.” Daniel said.
“Alright.” Jack brought the phone around, pointing it at the iron door. “I must have bumped into something, because the bookshelf opened.”
“You mean you didn’t know about this?” Bridged asked.
“This had better not be some kind of scheme.” Daniel warned.
“I swear.” Jack put some extra weight in his words. “I had no idea this was here.” He quickly switched to the phone’s front-facing camera. “I’ll get an inspector in here to take a look as soon as possible and get back to you.”
“An inspector?” Daniel asked.
“I want to make sure the home is still up to code. I wouldn’t want to sell you a property that will cause you problems later.” Jack replied.
“Maybe he’s right. This is our retirement home Daniel, we don’t want any problems with it.” Bridget said.
“Absolutely not. Who knows how long that will take? You’re showing us the house now, so let’s see all of it.” Daniel said.
“I really don’t think—” Jack began.
“I’m the customer here, and I want to see the damn house.” Daniel wasn’t screaming, exactly, but he had a way of speaking that felt much worse.
“For the record. I’m not comfortable with this. But you’re right. Just let me figure out how to open this thing.” Jack replied. It looked unlike any door he’d ever seen. Some strange horizontal bar ran along it, splitting at the centre and reaching the two rightmost corners. A vertical bar connected these corners as well. All over the door was writing like he’d never seen. It looked almost Arabic, but didn’t have the curls and dots you’d find in that language. It was more like a series of scratches at at different angles. There were hundreds of them, gouged deep into the iron. The scratches were grouped up into what had to be words. It looked like some piece you’d find in a museum, not hidden in a home like this. “Have either of you ever seen writing like this?”
“Oh heavens no.” Bridget said.
“I’m more of a numbers man. How about we stop wasting time and you open her up?” Daniel said.
“Wait what?” Jack asked.
“We want to see the rest of this house, so you’d better find a way to open that door up.” Daniel replied. Jack had to stop and think. First, he’d found some strange door the owners had never mentioned. Second, it was covered in some unknown ancient writing. Best case scenario, the owners were closet history nerds and there’d be a couple interesting museum pieces beyond the door. Worst case scenario, he’d find a pile of bodies. The smart thing to do would be to call the owners, have them explain this. Or call 911. That could cost him the sale, and there were precious few of those left.
“Well?” Daniel demanded. Jack focused on how badly he needed this sale, how sick he was of rural projects.
“Just let me figure this thing out.” He deliberately ignored the strange script, focused on making sense of the door’s mechanisms. There was something where the doorknob would be. It was similar to the knob on a safe, but larger, nearly the size of a dinner plate. It had nubs all about its circumference, like a gear. Jack carefully brought his hand closer to it. He wasn’t sure what he expected, maybe a burn or a shock. He could actually hear Daniel breathing. He grabbed hold of the knob. It felt loose, like it could smoothly turn with the barest touch. It glided for a half turn, then slowly became harder to spin. He could feel it catching on something, several somethings, then stopped. The bars along the door moved, clanking loudly and hissing air. They moved in turn, like tumblers on a lock. Jack heard something grind into place, and he pulled instinctively. The knob came off, nearly flying out of his hand.
“That’s amazing! I wonder what they’ve got behind there!” Bridget exclaimed.
“Well we’re all going to find out together.” Daniel added.
“Yeah...” Jack finished, doing his best to keep some of that pep he’d felt walking into the home earlier. He carefully placed the strange knob on the ground, then pushed the door. It opened, smooth and quiet. A harsh neon light flashed on, buzzing automatically. It revealed a hallway no more than five feet wide. The aggressive light made the packed dirt walls look eerily similar to a hospital hallway. The hallway stretched for about ten feet, ending in a hole. The top of a ladder poked from its edge. “Well this is creepy. It’s creepy right?”
“Man up. You’ve managed to hold our interest in this house. Don’t lose it now.” Daniel said.
“That’s not helpful.” Bridget replied, shooting a glare at her husband, “You’re doing a fantastic job. Just get us a look at wherever this ladder leads and that’s all we’ll need.”
“Uh, I’m, uh, not sure that’s a great idea.” Jack mumbled.
“Please, Jack. I’m loving this house, and I don’t want that to change.”
“Alright. I’m gonna have to put you in my pocket for a bit. Going to need both hands.” Jack said.
“You’d better not drop the call.” Daniel warned. Jack didn’t dignify the comment with a response. He popped the button on his suit jacket, and dropped his phone into the breast pocket. He stepped into the hallway. He half-expected the door to swing shut behind him dramatically, but it didn’t. It calmly rested against the wall. He looked over the edge of the hole. It looked like a twenty foot drop. He noticed the ladder was mounted into the wall. At least it would be stable. Jack placed his foot on the first rung and took a deep breath. He could hear Bridget and Daniel debating something on the phone, but couldn’t make out what was being said. The things he’d do for a sale.
(End of Part 1)
The click of his shoes echoed as Jack stepped off the ladder. The floor was rough masonry. Jack ran his polished, pointed shoe over the floor, finding irregular levels and catches that scratched at the sole. Ahead was another hallway, hardly more than shoulder width. Jack fished the phone out of his pocket. Bridget was mid-sentence, and Daniel called her attention to the camera.
“Catch you at a bad time?” He said with a forced smile. Metal scraped behind him. Jack spun, heart racing. The ladder had disappeared. Well, not exactly; it was sliding away from him fast, up towards the entrance. He tried to grab it, but it shot out of his reach. His heart pounded in his ears. The ladder stopped more than ten feet above his head. His breath was ragged and heavy now.
“Jack? What’s going on?” Bridget’s voice droned at him. Jack realized he was holding the phone low, at his side. He pulled it up, keeping his eyes focused on the ladder.
“I’m not sure what happened. The ladder just moved, and now I can’t reach it! I think I’m stuck! I’m going to call the fire department, get someone to help me here.”
“We can do that for you. Honey, I want you to stay on the line, I don’t want to worry about you.” Bridget said. She turned to Daniel, something unspoken passing between them. Daniel pulled a phone out of his pocket and started dialing. He left the frame as the phone rang. Jack could hear him speaking, but the microphone didn’t pick up his words.
“Thank you Bridget. I’m so sorry, I don’t know what’s going on.” Jack said.
“It’s alright dear. Try and find another way out while we get someone who can help.” Bridget replied.
“Shouldn’t I stay put?” Jack remembered those wilderness shows, where Australian men ate strange things. Didn’t they say you had to wait for rescue? Mostly he just didn’t want to get lost in some dark tunnel.
“It could take them a while to get there. Let’s just treat this as the rest of the visit.” She tried to sound cheerful. Jack wasn’t entirely convinced. Still, he turned the phone’s light on. The tunnel ahead was all rough stones, uneven. It reminded him of some kind of medieval dungeon. He imagined finding an old skeleton shackled to a wall, a crumpled note held in its hand. He shuddered at the thought. He took a step forward, then looked back to the ladder. It was too far out of reach, he reminded himself. He couldn’t get himself out that way. He took a second step into the tunnel, placing his free hand along the wall. He felt every bump and ridge as he walked, the imperfections of old work. It was a far cry from the floorboards far above him. He glanced at his phone every so often, and could see Bridget craning her neck, trying to see through the dark. Even with the light, there wasn’t much to see. He couldn’t tell how far the tunnel stretched. It was cold down here, like the temperature dropped with every step. It was midsummer, even a basement shouldn’t be this cold. A shiver ran through him. He could only hear his footsteps, shined leather shoes clicking against the stonework. Jack swung the phone back, illuminating the hallway behind him. There was a slight curve to the tunnel, turning left as he followed it.
“What’s happening, Jack?” Bridget said. Jack nearly jumped in surprise.
“Not much, how about you?” Jack answered. It was supposed to be a joke. It sounded more like a plea.
“Tell me something about yourself Jack. Something I’ve never heard before.” Her smile was kind and warm.
“Well I went to Cancun a few years ago and was hit by a car. The doctors gave me a bunch of morphine, then debated amputating my leg right over me.” Jack smirked. “They didn’t do it.”
“That must have been scary.”
“Yeah. It’s a kind of barometer for me; everything scary gets compared to that.” Jack chuckled nervously. “This is getting close.”
Not only was the tunnel curving, it sloped down. He figured he was well below the house’s first floor now, though there was no way of truly knowing. After some time, the tunnel opened ahead of him, opening into a room so large the phone’s light could barely reach the opposite wall. It was a dead end. Jack’s heart pounded in his ears. “There’s no way out.” He struggled to control his voice.
“What do you mean?” Bridget asked.
“This is just a closed room, it doesn’t go anywhere!” Jack answered, struggling to breathe. He felt so cold.
“Jack, you can’t panic now.” Bridget’s head turned, looking off-frame. “Oh, Daniel’s back!” The middle-aged man entered the frame and sat heavily.
“I just got off the phone with the fire department.” Daniel sounded even more frustrated than usual. “Can you believe in took 20 minutes for them to even understand my directions?”
“What did they say?” Bridget asked.
“Apparently there’s some big fire in town. It’ll be at least an hour before they can get anyone to him.”
“An hour?” Jack asked, feeling his gut twist. “I’m going to be trapped in here for an hour?” He thought briefly of the meetings he’d miss, then of the tunnels, the darkness, and his phone battery getting low.
“That’s not a good attitude to have, son.” Daniel called him that too often. “A man is never trapped by his situation. He chooses to hold himself within it.” Jack hated Daniel’s pulp magazine inspired man talk.
“But there is no exit.” Jack replied.
“Well look around. There’s got to be something.” Daniel said.
“Alright. I’ll call you back once I’ve done that.” Jack answered. Daniel was already wording a protest, but Jack cut the call. He let out a breath, groaning as he did. He was sick of dealing with Daniel’s generation and their contempt. They thought it was subtle, too. Comments and remarks on his hair, the car he drove, what he ate for breakfast. It was enough to drive a man mad. Jack did his best to control his breathing. It was a good thing the clients weren’t there with him. He wouldn’t stay trapped long. He pulled up the keypad on his smartphone and dialed 911. Every ring was a few seconds too long.
“911, what’s your emergency?” The voice was snappy but polite.
“Hi, I’m Jack. I’m in real estate. I’m at 181 Wensworth Drive and I’m trapped in some weird basement.”
“Could you explain how you got trapped? Are you injured?” The voice on the phone asked.
“No, I’m not injured. There was this weird door, I went down this ladder and something pulled it back up.”
“Yes, I see a call was already placed concerning your emergency. First responders are on their way, please hold tight. We need to keep this line clear.”
“No, you don’t understand, I was told I’d be trapped here for an hour!”
“Just sit tight and don’t panic.” The operator replied before hanging up.
“Hello?” Jack asked the dial tone. “Hello!” It didn’t answer. He shouted. He dialed the number again.
“911, what is your emergency?” It was another voice, similar to the first one.
“Hi, I’m trapped in some weird basement and I need help.”
“Sir, first responders are on their way.”
“You don’t understand!” Jack was interrupted by the dial tone. He nearly tossed his phone. He needed the light. What was the point of calling 911 if they belittled your emergency? He chased the thought away. There was no way he was staying down here for an hour. Look around, Daniel had said. Yeah, he could do that. If he could build a real estate business out of nothing, he could look around a room. He’d already been facing the left wall, but only now did he really get a good look at it. Its entire surface was covered in etchings and sculptures. Bas-relief, he remembered it being called; the figures seemed to rise from the stone, creating an illusion of depth. He couldn’t help but run his fingers over some of these images. They came back caked in dust. He brushed them against his suit jacket. Jack took a step back, trying to see more of the sculpture. The images were large, much taller than he was, and covered the entire wall. He could tell it was some kind of battle. Men and women wielded spears and shields, slamming into each other. He was surprised to see women fighting alongside men. He wasn’t a history buff, but weren’t men the only ones who fought in these ancient wars? These looked to represent ancient people, they wore tunics not unlike those worn by the Greeks.
The sculptures themselves were beautiful, but unremarkable. The fact that they existed under this house was what baffled him. As he followed the wall, the scenes of battle turned into scenes of people arguing. They were seated in some kind of auditorium. Then the people split into groups, the tunics turning to longer robes, framed by images of ancient temples and huge ships crossing oceans. One image stood out among the others, right after Jack rounded the corner. It was a massive figure, larger than any other, its hands outstretched. It was mostly naked, almost human, save for its face. It was all rough angles and ridges, with a jutting chin and pointed teeth that poked from the lip. Its sunken eyes lacked pupils. They were dark and beady. The brow, ridged and pronounced, was covered in growths, like hardened knobs. The head ended in a bundle of twisted horns. Jack stood in awe. It looked like nothing he’d ever seen before. It reminded him of Egyptian gods, with their animal heads, except the body wasn’t exactly human. It was ugly and menacing, and he was glad it was just stone. With a glance over his shoulder, he realized he was standing opposite of the tunnel he’d come through. It seemed so far already.
His attention fell on a huge stone block, waist-high and much wider, taking up the centre of the room. On top of it was a raised edge, about two inches wide, that ran all along its sides. On the block rested two items. One was a heavy book, thick and antiquated as a phone book. It was bound in dark, stained leather. Next to it was a tablet. It looked several models too old to have been used recently; with the young age of the homeowners he’d have expected something newer. It was off, the screen black and covered in dust. Jack reached for the book first. He opened it to a page near the middle. The pages were somewhere between cream and beige; not yellowed by humidity, more like they were printed on some paper you just didn’t find anymore. On these was the same script he’d found on the door; angular scratches and curves that seemed grouped into letters and words. Jack flipped more pages. The same script. It was all over the book. It wasn’t the random scribbling of a madman; it was organized, like a language. He just had no idea what he was looking at. Frustrated, he closed the book and put it down. He grabbed the tablet, not expecting much. He only had to look for a moment before finding the power button. He held it down for a few seconds. Just as he was about to give up, the screen flared, turning the bright white of digital life. He quickly brushed the dust off the screen, and the white dissolved, leaving a stream of text in its place.
Information will betray man. Blind thoughts will replace facts of sight, spread by great tunnels of light. Too many will follow arrogant ideas...
Jack swiped the text away. He tapped at the tablet until it would show him all its applications. There were none. Not even the bloatware these devices typically came with, the kind you couldn’t remove unless you had a friend who took these things apart for fun. There were no icons for the tablet’s settings, no internet browser. Only the text file, with “Tanslation” for its title. A warning popped up. The tablet’s battery was at 1%. Jack opened the text file again. Maybe there was something in the book that could lead him out. He swiped through the file quickly, skimming it for anything that stood out. It sounded like the conspiracy theories you’d find online. Apocalyptic consequences of human hubris, promises of unknown wisdoms if only a few rules were followed and weird descriptions of modern technology. He glanced back at the book. The text file couldn’t really be a translation of the tome. It was far too old to be referencing modern technology. Here was a mention of smartphones and the ensuing decay of the youth’s attention span. Jack took that one personally. Another referred to social webs that would interlink all men on Earth. No, this had to be some kind of strange trick, or the result of an elaborate fraud or some weird hobby. He noticed a name, one he didn’t recognize but seemed significant, like something you’d find in the Bible.
Nexahtémoc’s iron grip carries the will of man forward, traversing the perils and trials of—
The screen went black. A sad battery, framed in red, appeared and blinked a few times. “No! Come on you stupid thing!” Jack pressed the power button. The battery disappeared. He pushed the button again. Nothing happened. “You gave me nothing!” He whipped the tablet across the room, and it smashed against the stone wall. Jack slumped against the stone block, sliding to the ground. It was completely dark now. The half-remembered name rolled around in his mind. His phone buzzed. Jack pulled it out. His clients were calling. He took a deep breath before answering. The faces of Bridget and Daniel appeared on the screen. The former looked deeply concerned. The latter was more difficult to read.
“Jack! I know you wanted time to figure this out, but I was getting so worried. How are you doing?” Bridget asked.
“I’ve been better.” Jack answered, injecting artificial humor into his voice.
“Have you found a way out?” Daniel asked.
“No, Daniel. I haven’t.” Jack pushed himself back to his feet. “There’s nothing but murals and a book in here.”
“A book?” Daniel’s eyebrow arced.
“Yeah, but it’s written in weird scratch marks. It’s useless.”
“Show me.” Daniel said.
“Show me the book.” Daniel demanded. Jack didn’t want to argue. It was bad enough being trapped down here. He considered hanging up, but some small part of him still dared to hope for a sale. It didn’t want to anger Daniel.
“Yeah, give me a second.” Jack camouflaged the frustration in his voice. He brought the phone around, turning on the backlight. It illuminated the book harshly. The script had ragged edges, like it had been written with charcoal. Jack could hear Daniel pondering, could see his eyes narrowing.
“Weird writing.” Daniel finally said. “Looks old too.”
“I already knew that.” Jack remarked.
“Were you able to pick up anything important?” Daniel asked.
“Not much, stuff about technology and the ‘information age’. There was a name in there, Nexamoc I think?”
“Nexahtémoc?” Daniel answered quickly.
“How did you know that?” Jack asked.
“I minored in Anthropology; there’s a couple useless names and facts still kicking around the back of my brain.” Daniel leaned forward. “Do you remember what it said about him?”
“Something about an iron grip and...leading men?” Jack struggled to remember.
“You mentioned murals.” Bridget added. “Did you see this ‘Nexahtémoc’ thing on there somewhere?”
“I wouldn’t know what it looks like.”
“Well what was on the murals?” Daniel asked.
“There were people fighting,” Jack turned slowly as he spoke, “talking, arguing.” His light caught the mural, revealing the humanoid horned creature from before. “Wait.” He approached the wall. The figure had an imposing air, towering over him. He noticed that the figure was darker than the rest of the wall; it wasn’t made of the same stone. He touched it. It was cold and smooth, not rough and chipped like the rest of the mural. It was iron, a solid piece of iron set into the stone wall. “His iron grip carries the will of man forwards.” Jack mumbled to himself.
“What was that?” Daniel asked. Jack ignored him. His eyes dropped to the iron figure’s hands. They were opened. Welcoming. Jack reached out and placed his hand in the centre of the metal palm. It dwarfed his. The cool metal warmed under his touch. Daniel was asking more questions. Bridget voiced her concern once or twice. Something crunched, several times. The mural slid, extracting itself from the figure, from Nexahtémoc. The stone parted from the iron, revealing a narrow passage no wider than a foot or two. It made a loud thud as it stopped moving. “Jack, what the hell happened?” Daniel was getting angry now. Jack answered by pointing the phone’s camera at the passage. “Well done.”
“Well done?” Jack scoffed. “It’s just going deeper!” The light couldn’t find the end of the passage, only more darkness far ahead.
“It’s got to be only a little further!” Bridget reassured him.
“There has to be more than one entrance.” Daniel agreed. “Keep at it and you’ll find a way out.”
“Shouldn’t I just wait here? I’ve gone so far already.” Jack argued.
“It’s going to take too long,” Daniel said, “What if the fire spreads? The firefighters will be too busy to get you then.” Daniel paused, exchanging a quick look with Bridget. The woman looked worried. “Get through that passage. Call us back when you have. We want to see everything.” The call disconnected. Jack’s hand went to his forehead and he rubbed his face. The passage was too narrow, and who knew how long it went for? The surface was behind him, as was the hope for rescue. Except 911 hadn’t given him a timeframe. Daniel had said an hour. There was no knowing how long it would take for someone, anyone to get to him. Maybe he didn’t need first responders. He swiped through his contact list, looking for the biggest guy who wouldn’t be busy on a Wednesday afternoon. He found the perfect match. Jack dialed the number. It took several seconds for the call to start. Only it didn’t ring. He got a busy tone, and the call disconnected. He tried again. Same result. He went through half of his contact list, only to be greeted with busy tones and failing calls. No one was coming. Were all his contacts really that busy? Were his calls just not going through? Impossible, he had no problem reaching Bridget and Daniel. His gaze lifted back to the tunnel. It was too narrow. But what choice did he have? He held his phone up, keeping the light focused on the passage, and squeezed in.
(End of Part 2)
There were only a few inches of clearance, but Jack could shuffle in through. Dust was thick in the air, and breathing was difficult. Jack focused on the way ahead. He forced himself not to glance back, not to think of returning to the room. He had to go forward, had to find an exit. Daniel had said it; there had to be more than one entrance. No structure would be built with only one way in, especially if the ladder could be pulled up at any time. That would trap anyone who entered. It didn’t make sense. He shuffled on, keeping his palm on the wall, as if he expected it to suddenly close in. He thought of how massive this underground structure had to be. Why was it here? How long had it been here? The owners had to know about it; the bookshelf was perfectly placed to hide the iron door that had led him here. They hadn’t mentioned it, which made Jack worry. If it was some kind of archaeological find they wanted to keep secret, why sell the house? The owners were young, maybe only ten years older than him.
He realized they’d never really said why they were selling, even when Jack had asked. They had another agent looking for their new home, so hadn’t said what they were looking for elsewhere either. He recalled that the home had been part of an inheritance; it had come up in a conversation about the taxes on the eventual sale. With the age of the owners, it had to have been inherited recently. Maybe they hadn’t even lived in it at all. It was a lovely home, a type rarely found in this area. Why would they be so willing to part with it? The passage had become narrower. The light from his phone still didn’t show the end of the passage. He thought about turning back. But how long was he willing to wait in that room? No, he had to go through. He kept going through the passage, and it narrowed again, the wall nearly touching his chest now. He shuffled faster. Both walls touched him. He couldn’t breathe as deeply. He tried not to choke on the dust. Jack tried bringing his phone up to look behind him, see how far he’d made it. It slipped out of his hand. “No!” It spun on itself before landing with a smack, screen up, smothering the light. He was in total darkness. He tried to bend down, to reach for the device. The walls were too tight. He must have been only inches from reaching it. His curses echoed off the walls. He felt around with his foot, finding the phone with the tip of his toes. He tried getting the point of his shoe underneath it. He flicked his foot up, tried to flip the phone. It skid several feet ahead. “Fucking piece of shit!” Jack pushed himself onward. The walls were tight around him; his ribs couldn’t expand beyond the shallowest breath. He moved more quickly. His foot hit the phone, and he sent it skidding ahead. He just had to get to the opening, however far it might be. His mind, inspired by the darkness that surrounded him, ran wild. Maybe some giant spider would drop from above, filling him with venom that would paralyze him, but leave him alive. He would want to thrash and fight, but could only watch as it ate him alive. He thought he saw its beady eyes above, watching and waiting for the perfect moment.
“There are no giant spiders, not outside terrible movies.” Jack said. Maybe the darkness itself would smother him, maybe he’d just get stuck in the tunnel and suffocate. No one would find him because they wouldn’t know where to look. Jack was hyperventilating. The phone skid across the ground. He had to squeeze through the passage now, using his hands to pull himself along. He would die here. The door would close behind him and no one would find him again. His mother would cry at a funeral with an empty casket, his car would never get paid off, and he’d never go on that trip to Bora Bora. His eyes watered. He felt light-headed. The phone skipped across the ground. He couldn’t breathe, had no room to take in air. He made some hacking sound as he tried to breathe. His hand found a corner. Panicked, he pulled. He felt terrible pain as the hall compressed him like a clamp, trying to prevent him from escaping. He cried out as he pulled but didn’t move. He pulled harder, feeling something rip under his armpits. Then his body started to slip forward, inch by inch. His legs felt weak, and he knew he’d be collapsing if the walls hadn’t trapped him. He pulled with all his strength, and with a scrape felt all over, he finally came free from the hall, falling forward. He landed hard, barely able to catch himself. Weakness took his limbs, and he felt groggy.
Jack took a long, deep breath in, nearly choking on it. He blinked the lightness slowly leaving his head. He felt pain in his chest as he breathed, but at least he could fill his lungs. He rubbed at the tears in his eyes. Jack fumbled for his phone. He felt thick dust stick to his fingers as he ran his hands over the masonwork. Eventually, he felt the smooth, familiar plastic on his fingertips. He quickly snatched the device up. The light was still shining. He could feel the deep scratches in the back of the phone, where the stone had bit into it. He tapped the screen with his thumb. It lit up, showing a web of cracks. Jack cursed. He felt pain in his chest and carefully patted himself down. The ribs on his left felt tender. His suit jacket had ripped under the arms and dust covered the rest of his outfit. He looked back at the tunnel, shining the light through. He didn’t know what he’d expected to see. There was nothing but stone and darkness.
The chamber he found himself in now had to be half as big as the one he’d left behind. The floors here were smooth. There was only the occasional seam that separated the stone into wide slabs. One of these seams ran under his foot. The stones met almost perfectly, seeming to meld into one another. The line that separated them couldn’t have been more than a few millimeters wide. These slabs had to have been cut with some incredibly precise tool. Jack’s thought of a laser, but he knew that wasn’t possible. Weren’t those tools big, unwieldy industrial things? He pushed the thought from his mind. He needed to get out, not ponder the stonework. The walls arced above, ending in a dome far overhead. The room was bare, save for a small pillar in its center. It was square and no more than three feet high. A rectangular slot was carved into its top. Beyond it was a door! He went for it. His phone rang. Only now did he think it strange that he still had signal so far underground. You enter the subway and your connection dies. These tunnels had to be deeper than the subway. Yet, his phone rang. Daniel and Bridget were calling. His thumb hovered over the screen for a few seconds. Why? They were his clients. He had no reason to hesitate. Jack answered. He could barely see their faces behind all the cracks in the screen. “Jack! Have you made it?” Bridget’s concern was overbearing.
“He probably didn’t even go through.” Daniel said.
“I went through. It was...wasn’t easy.” Jack answered.
“But you did it! Where are you now?” Bridget asked. Jack flipped the camera on his phone, giving it a practiced sweep, taking in the whole room. The stillness of it stifled conversation. It was a silence Jack recognized. When a client saw that perfect mix of need and desire, they reacted in one of two ways. Either they shrieked, or a sort of satisfied silence came over them. That silence was what he heard from Daniel and Bridget now.
“What is this place?” Jack asked.
“That door is your way out.” Bridget said. Something had changed in her voice.
“How do you know that?” Jack felt his stomach twist.
“You can go through that door, and you’ll find your way back up. Or you can stay for a few more minutes.” Daniel said.
“Why the hell would I do that?” Jack scoffed.
“How badly do you want this sale?” Daniel asked. For the first time, there was nothing condescending in his question. No snark or criticism. Jack didn’t answer right away. His mind raced.
“What are you talking about? I want to get out of here!” Jack said. He couldn’t see the expression on Daniel’s face. It was like the cracks on the screen had decided to converge there.
“Yet you came down here, because you wanted the sale.” Daniel replied.
“Why do you need it so badly?” Bridget asked, almost on cue.
“My business is young, I need every sale.” Jack said.
“No bullshit,” Daniel cut in, “tell us the truth, Jack.”
“Krewski & Bohlmann.” Jack finally said. “Biggest real estate agency in the big city, and they’re opening a branch here.” He let out a breath. He’d never really voiced his fear out loud before. How appropriate that he was doing it now, in this place. “I’m trying to get as many sales as I can, build up a client base before they move in. I have a week.”
“That can be frustrating. You’re a hard worker, and you feel like that should be enough. You just wish you had their resources.” Bridget said.
“You think you could compete.” Daniel stated.
“Why are we even talking about this? The door is right there and I’m taking it.” Jack said.
“Then go, take the exit.” Bridget offered. She waited several seconds. Jack’s feet didn’t move. “There’s a question burning at the back of your mind.”
“No question is worth staying down here.” Jack replied.
“Ask it.” Daniel said. Jack looked at the door again. It was right there. Still, he had a feeling about all this, the same kind of prickly sensation he got when a girl told him they needed to talk.
“Did you know about these tunnels?” Jack asked, eyes narrowing.
“Yes.” Bridget answered.
“Did you make me find them?”
“We didn’t make you do anything. But we did guide you to them, yes.” Daniel said.
“The fuck,” Jack’s words spilled out, “why would you send me down here?”
“We needed to see them, make sure they were...intact.”
“What do you know about the murals? What is Nexahtémoc?” Jack didn’t find Daniel’s Anthropology minor too believable now.
“We could explain that,” Bridget said, “though I think most of it would go over your head.” The figure in the screen moved, adjusting its seat. It was difficult to recognize. “Instead, since you are here, let’s talk about what we can do for you.”
“You expect me to just forget that you trapped me down here?”
“We didn’t.” Daniel said sternly. “We had nothing to do with the ladder.” Daniel cleared his throat. “You’re not the kind of man to let the past get in the way of an opportunity, are you?” It was the first time Daniel had referred to Jack as a man.
“What opportunity?” Jack asked.
“We do want the home, that was no lie. We want to buy the house from you, but we also want to be sure you don’t reveal the existence of these tunnels to anyone.” Bridget said.
“Why would I do that?” Jack asked, ready to unleash a torrent of questions. He stopped himself. “What are you offering me?”
“A leg up on the competition.” Daniel said. “In exchange for confidentiality.”
“Not much more than is typically asked of a professional in your line of work.” Bridget added.
“You pay for the home and you get it. But my confidentiality? What do you have to offer that’s worth that?” Jack asked.
“Place your phone on the pillar.” Daniel instructed.
“Why?” Jack asked. Neither answered. He clutched the phone, protecting it, and looked at the pillar ahead of him. They promised an advantage over Krewski & Bohlmann. They wanted his silence, desperately. He wasn’t sure why, but he knew it had something to do with the murals he’d already seen, the iron figure with the outstretched hands. He approached the small pillar, his eyes focused on the slot atop it. It was roughly the size of the tablet he’d smashed. A plug, like the tip of a phone charger, was at the tip of the slot. It didn’t match his phone. He looked back to his screen. “I can’t put my phone in there. It won’t work.”
“What model do you have?” Daniel asked.
“A Nebula K5.” Jack said.
“Look again.” Daniel replied. Jack did so. The plug was different now, a perfect fit for his device. Had he seen right? He could have sworn it was too wide before. He almost asked. He held his tongue. He wanted to leave. He wanted to be done with these tunnels. But he needed the sale. And he needed to beat Krewski & Bohlmann. He placed his phone in the slot, sliding it over the plug. The faces of Daniel and Bridget winked off and the screen turned white before showing its home screen. Then it went black. White text scrawled across it, slowly at first, then too fast for someone to type. Jack grew worried. This would break his phone. Or worse, he was being hacked. This was an elaborate ploy to steal his personal information. It was a ridiculous thought, but one that still nagged at him. He reached for the phone, ready to rip it from the pillar. The text faded. The screen was black for a few seconds more. Then a logo appeared. It wasn’t the logo of his phone’s manufacturer. It was a stylized N, framed in silver. He’d never seen it before. It faded, and the phone’s entire screen turned red. The colour drained from the screen and into the pillar, running along it in a patchwork of ragged lines. They reached the floor, then flowed through the seams in the stone slabs. In a second, the floor was criss-crossed with luminous veins. The walls dimmed, somehow. Then there was a voice Jack didn’t recognize. It was low, too quiet to hear and strangely pitched. Then, the walls brightened suddenly. He saw the inside of an office all around him. As he turned, he could see each corner of it, and the faces of those sitting at a long table. It was as if he was standing on the table, yet no one acknowledged his presence. It looked as if the entire scene was projected around him. At the head of the table was a man he recognized from billboards that had sprouted all over town. Tall, handsome, and with a trendy haircut. Ryan Krewski, one half of the Krewski & Bohlmann powerhouse real estate team. It was his voice that Jack heard.
“This is the strategy.” He pointed to a beautifully designed presentation behind him. “Our loyal buyers are ready to move in. Some are investors looking to spur the local economy, others want to take advantage of the quiet market. We already have people on the ground prowling for leads, posing as buyers. We’ll collect the leads, prioritize our client base, and help them move in. We’ll hold open houses and list the homes of course. Just so it’s all above board.” There was a chorus of agreement around the table, the cacophony of it left Jack disoriented. The image faded, and the red lines retreated into the pillar. He didn’t understand how, but he’d just seen a private meeting at Krewski & Bohlmann. They were planning to hold homes for their own clients, completely bypassing the standard process. Not only were they giving their clients preferential treatment, they were also ensuring they could secure the commission on both ends: the sale and the purchase. They were dirty.
“What am I supposed to do with this?” Jack shouted. The information would do him no good. No one would believe him, even if he told every media outlet he could. It’s not like he had any evidence. The phone’s screen blinked again. There was an icon in its centre. It was a folder. Jack approached the pillar again, reaching for the phone. He hesitated for a moment, then tapped the screen. A text file appeared: a lengthy list of addresses.
“Those are the leads Krewski & Bohlmann have yet to secure. It is a list sent to their employees who search for homes in your town.” Daniel’s voice came from the room now. “You’ll need to move quickly.”
“Remember,” Bridget’s voice said, “to keep all of this confidential.” Jack wasn’t sure what to say. Nothing from any customer service, business or accounting training he’d received had the answer. He plucked his phone from the slot and headed for the door. It slid open as he approached, stone slowly grinding against stone. Beyond the threshold was a room no larger than a closet. He looked over his shoulder. What was this place? What did the murals mean? What was Nexahtémoc? He didn’t know if he’d ever get an answer to any of it. That nagged at him. He wanted to ask them out loud, but something told him it would be marginally less useful than screaming into a void. He stepped through the doors. The small closet was actually akin to an elevator shaft, stretching straight overhead. The doors closed behind him the moment he was through, and with the sound of scraping stone he began to rise.
It took several minutes for the stone to lift him back to the surface, and he emerged in a small, dusty shack full of forgotten tools. Jack made his way through, careful not to step on anything. When he reached the door, he found it barred by a squat, rusted iron rod. He removed it and opened the door. The air was warm and dry. Breathing it soothed his lungs. He could see the house, though it seemed closer than his underground journey would have suggested He reached his car without much difficulty, trudging through the tall grass without his usual caution. His shoes were marred with dust and dirt, but he didn’t care. Even the rips in his jacket were forgotten. As his hand touched the car door, his phone buzzed in his pocket. He checked it. It was difficult to see beyond the cracks, but a notification advised him of a new deposit in his bank account. His commission. Jack noticed that the cracks didn’t obscure as much of the screen as they had previously. The network of lines still reached each side of the screen, but didn’t seem nearly as dense. A truck pulled up the driveway, stopping right in front of the home’s main entrance. It was a small moving truck. There was no logo on its side. Two men in caps stepped out simultaneously. The driver greeted Jack with a tip of his cap, then went to the back of the truck. They started unloading large wooden crates. Was cardboard not good enough for these people?
It hadn’t even been 24 hours since the biggest sale in Jack’s career. He was seated in his bedroom, which was also his office. He stared at a laptop screen. His bank account had a six figure balance. It was the first time he’d had so much money in one place. He glanced to the phone that sat on his desk. The cracks had almost completely disappeared, like they’d melted back into the screen. He couldn’t explain it. Usually you needed to switch the whole thing out; even experts didn’t bother fixing it. He tapped on the screen. It felt warm, like it had been running all day. The phone blinked on and showed its usual menu, not a single thing out of place. He swiped through the apps. He found the stylized N, framed with silver, that he’d seen the day before. It looked like a normal logo for a regular app. It just didn’t have a name. He tapped it, and up popped the same list of leads he’d been shown the day before. He’d opened the list several times in the past day, as if wanting to confirm it actually existed. Like having the list meant he hadn’t dreamed the tunnels. His escapade already felt so unreal, not quite like a dream but just as strange. The iron figure of Nexahtémoc still lurked in his brain. It almost seemed living in his mind’s eye, its gaze pulsing and horns twisting at the back of its head. He still heard Bridget’s voice, stressing confidentiality. Nevermind that neither her or Daniel could be found anymore. Their contact information had vanished from his phone, as had all of their emails. His email account was linked to his laptop, so all their information was gone from there as well. There were records of the sale with their names, of course. The transaction was official, properly documented. But it was like they’d ceased to exist for him. He couldn’t have contacted them even if he wanted to. He flipped over to his social media accounts, distracted fingers acting independently. The phone responded quickly, quicker than he expected. He swiped through his list of friends looking for...whom? No one specifically, just someone who would believe him. Jack shook his head and put the phone down. He’d been asked to stay quiet, to keep his memories of the tunnels to himself. He’d been paid for it, handsomely, with insider information. Information that was definitely acquired illegally. If the tunnels were being kept a secret, something nasty had to be going on down there. Daniel and Bridget had to be involved. It had to be the most interesting thing that had ever happened to him, and here he was unable to tell anyone. He looked to the cellphone. Before today, he would have been loathe to part with it. Jack opened a drawer in his desk and placed the phone in it. He glanced back to the laptop. Like so many modern devices, the two were intrinsically linked. He closed the lid, and rummaged through his desk.
The pen felt strange in his hand; he hadn’t held one in weeks. The scrap of paper was the back of a piece of spam, plucked from a pile by his front door. He sat still for several minutes. How did he begin? What was the point of this? Did he need to tell someone about the tunnels, hoping they’d have an idea what to do? Or was it just a compulsive need to share? He tried to think of it as a text message, a simple opener to a conversation. So he began to write. It was a strange feeling, writing something so long by hand. Still, his posture straightened as he did so, some unseen weight leaving him. He didn’t know where the words would go, but he knew Daniel and Bridget wouldn’t see them. That was good enough.