The Chosen Childby Graham Masterton
American businesswoman Sarah Leonard is supervising the construction of a major new international hotel in post-Cold War Warsaw. If the job doesn't come in on time and under budget, Sarah will be out of a job.
Shockingly, a headless body is discovered in a sewer tunnel at the construction site. Polish authorities pressure the Warsaw police to solve the case… See more details below
American businesswoman Sarah Leonard is supervising the construction of a major new international hotel in post-Cold War Warsaw. If the job doesn't come in on time and under budget, Sarah will be out of a job.
Shockingly, a headless body is discovered in a sewer tunnel at the construction site. Polish authorities pressure the Warsaw police to solve the case quickly, even if they have to invent a murderer, lest the hotel chain withdraw its investment dollars.
Unluckily for the authorities, the case is assigned to Komisarz Stefan Rej. Rej wants a real investigation and real justice, particularly once his investigation turns up evidence that more than one person has disappeared or been slaughtered near the hotel site. The location is linked to the ancient legend of the Tunnel Child, a murderous creature with the face of an angel. Rumors insist that the Nazis attempted to create such a being with their warped science.
Who, or what, are Sarah and Rej chasing?
"One of the few true masters of the horror genre." James Herbert
- Doherty, Tom Associates, LLC
- Publication date:
- Edition description:
- 1ST TOR ED
- Product dimensions:
- 5.79(w) x 8.57(h) x 1.06(d)
Read an Excerpt
her bus came grinding to a halt at the bus stop and he said, "One last kiss," not knowing that it really would be.
She laughed and gave him a flurried little peck on the cheek. He took hold of her hand as she started to climb the stairs of the bus and tried to pull her back.
"Come on, I don't have all night!" the bus driver snapped at her.
The doors shut with a sharp pneumatic hiss, and Jan was left at the kerbside while the bus bellowed away to Mokotow in a thick cloud of diesel smoke. He briefly glimpsed Hanna waving at him, but then the bus was lost in the traffic, and she was gone.
A small fat woman in a headscarf came hurrying up to him, puffing and sweating. "Was that the 131?" she demanded, as if it were his fault that it had left without her.
"Don't worry. There'll be another one in five or ten minutes."
"That's what you say!" she protested. "It's worse than the old days!"
He laid a hand on her shoulder and gave her a wide, movie-idol grin. "Where are you going?" he asked her.
"Czerniakowska. What's it to you?"
He turned his back to her, crouched down, and extended his hands behind him. "Hop on. I'll carry you there myself."
This enraged her even more. "Idiota!" she spat at him. "What do you take me for? I'll give you 'hop on!'" But he was in such a good mood this evening that he didn't care. He left her at the bus stop and started making his way north on Marszalkowska with the confident, unhurried stroll of a man for whom everything is going right.
It was just past nine o'clock on a warm and windy August night, and the center of Warsaw was brightly lit and busy. Taxis banged and jolted past him on worn-out suspensions, and half-empty buses blared diesel into the air as they headed out for the suburbs of Zoliborz and Wola and east across the river to Praga. Newspapers were tossed by the wind and tangled around the legs of the people walking past the brightly-lit shops on Jerozolimskie Avenue.
That afternoon. Jan's producer Zbigniew Debski had told him that his idea for a new weekly satirical program had been approved, and that Radio Syrena was going to increase his salary to 950 zlotys a month. Jan was going to have enough money to save up for a car, and the chance to do what he did best, which was waspish, irreverent investigations into political scandals. Zbigniew had celebrated by bringing out vodka and platefuls of chocolate biscuits. At least he hadn't hugged him and kissed him, which he was occasionally inclined to do. Zbigniew had a mustache like a bramble-bush and boar-like body odor.
Best of all, though, Hanna had at last agreed to move in with him (her eyes shyly shining because she thought it was so daring). On Saturday he would borrow his friend Henryk's van and transport all of her belongings from her parents' apartment on Goworka to his own new apartment overlooking the river at the Slasko-Dubrowski bridge. He knew that Hanna's mother would complain, but mostly because the family would now be deprived of Hanna's income. Although she had graduated as a doctor of microbiology she worked as a fashion buyer at Sawa department store, and made almost as much money as Jan did, 650 zlotys a month.
Hanna's mother might miss the money, but she couldn't deny that he and Hanna were suited. They were both twenty-five years old; they both liked Blur and REM; they both enjoyed dancing and nightclubbing and pizzas and staying up most of the night talking about what they would do when Jan was famous. They could both collapse into helpless laughter at the slightest provocation. Their only difference was their complexion and their looks: Hanna was blond and round-faced and a little plump. Jan was thin as a rail, with dark cropped hair and eyebrows that looked like children's drawings of two rooks flying over a potato field. At least, that was his own description of them.
High over Marszalkowska towered the Palace of Culture and Science, over 230 meters high, with 3,000 rooms, a gigantic monument to Stalinist architecture, as if a baker of impossibly grandiose wedding cakes had been commissioned to design a rocket ship. By day it was gray: by night it was luridly lit with amber lights.
Jan reached the corner of Krowleska and waited to cross. A group of teenagers were larking about, passing around a bottle of vodka and cans of 7-Up. One of them was playing air guitar and singing "Born in the USA" in a thin breathless whine.
Most of this corner was boarded up with high, red painted hoardings. A huge sign on the Marszalkowska side showed an artist's impression of a twelve-story hotel, a tall column of glass and stainless steel"Warsaw Senate Hotel, A Joint Development of Senate International Hotels and Vistula Bank Kreditowy." Up until a month ago, the old Zaluski-Orbis Hotel had stood here, a relic of the worst that the Communist years had offered in the way of dingy accommodation, poor food and surly service. Jan had described it on his radio show as "Heartbreak Hotel." But now the whole of the center of Warsaw was being regenerated with glossy new stores and shiny new offices. Sheraton had just completed a new hotel on Plac Trzech Kryzyzy, and the Senate Hotel would be the next.
The lights changed and Jan was about to step off the kerb when he heard a faint but very high-pitched scream. He stopped, and turned, and listened. The teenagers were all crossing the street, laughing and looning around. He called out, "Hey! Did you hear?" but it was obvious that they hadn't heard him, let alone a distant scream.
He waited, and then he was sure that he could hear another scream, and then another, although a bus roared past him and blotted it out. He was sure that the screams had come from somewhere behind the red hoardings. They had sounded like a woman, or a child, although he couldn't be sure.
He walked back along the hoardings, peering between the cracks. There were one or two knotholes which he might have been able to see through, but they were too high up. All he could make out was a single arc lamp, which presumably had been left shining for security.
At the very end of the hoardings he came to a crude door. It must have been padlocked at one time, but now it was fastened only with a twisted length of wire. Jan stood looking at it and wondered what to do. If somebody was hurt or needed help, he really ought to take a look. Or maybe not. Maybe he ought to call 997 and leave it to the police.
As usual, there were no police on the streets, although a stocky man in a blue uniform and a peaked cap was approaching him, carrying a briefcase.
"Excuse me," Jan said. "I think there's something going on in here. I heard somebody screaming."
The man stopped and doubtfully stuck out his bottom lip. You would have thought mat he didn't understand plain Polish.
"Two or three screams," Jan insisted. "It sounded like a child."
The man cupped one hand to his ear, then shook his head. "I can't hear anything."
"I wasn't sure what to do. You're wearing a uniform."
"I work at the Palace of Culture. Doorman."
The man waited for a while, then shrugged and started to walk away.
"Listen!" Jan called after him. "I'll go inyou call the police!"
He didn't know whether the man heard him or not: he kept on walking and turned the corner into Krowleska. Shit, Jan thought. Thanks for your help.
He tried untwisting the wire. It was stiff, heavy-duty stuff, and whoever had twisted it up had obviously used a pair of pliers. He gashed his thumb, but he wrapped a handkerchief around it and continued trying to pull the wire free. A few people stopped for a moment and stared at him while he was doing it, although nobody intervened, except a thin youth with spiky hair and the beginnings of a silky black mustache. He stood close to Jan in his jeans and his denim jacket, and lit a Marlboro.
"You're wasting your time, man," he said. "That site was stripped weeks ago."
Jan glanced at him. "I thought I heard somebody inside. There were screams, two or three of them."
"Well, I just want to make sure."
"I thought you were scrounging for salvage. I found a bronze fireplace in there. I got 400 zlotys for it."
Jan pulled at the lapels of his bottle-green suede jacket. "Do I look like I'm scavenging for salvage?"
"I don't know. It takes all sorts. Do you want a hand?"
The youth took a Swiss Army knife out of his jacket, inserted one of the blades between the twisted wires, and slowly levered them apart.
"Thanks," said Jan. "I'll give you a mention on the radio for that."
The youth looked perplexed.
Jan held out his hand and said, "Jan Kaminski, Radio Syrena."
"Really? That's cool. I'm Marek: but most of my friends call me Kurtyou know, after Kurt Cobain."
Jan tugged open the door in the hoarding, and stepped into the demolition site. The Zaluski-Orbis had been knocked down to ground level, and all that was left were its dark cavernous basements, like entrances to the underworld. The arc lamp gave the site the brilliant, artifical appearance of a deserted movie-set. Weeds and nettles rustled in the wind.
Over to their left-hand side, a Russian-built crane and a caterpillar excavator were parked, silent mechanical dinosaurs. On the right-hand side were two temporary wooden huts with tarpaper roofs, and a stack of drainage pipes. A latrine stood at a dangerous tilt, and somebody had scrawled on the side "The Leaning Tower of Pisa." There was a strong smell of building-dust, and damp, and something else, too. Something sweet and ripe that clung in the nostrils.
"Sewers," sniffed Marek.
Jan stood still and listened. He thought he could hear somebody crying. A thin, pathetic wailing crythe way that children cry when they're utterly exhausted, or women cry when they feel that everything is absolutely hopeless. The traffic noise was slightly less deafening inside the hoarding, but all the same it was difficult to tell if it was really somebody crying, or whether it was nothing more than the wind blowing across the hollow piping.
"Can you hear that?" he asked Marek.
Marek sucked the last hot smoke from his cigarette and flicked it away. "I don't know. Maybe there's something."
Cautiously, they approached the brink of the excavated basements, and peered down into the darkness. It was so black down there that they couldn't see anything at all, but they could feel a soft, rotten draft blowing into their faces. And yes, they could hear crying, although now it was even fainter.
"You're right," said Marek. "There is something down there. But it sounds more like a cat to me."
"I wish we had a flashlight."
"There's probably one in those huts."
"Oh, yes, and how do you propose to get it? They're both padlocked."
Marek looked around and then picked up a heavy chunk of broken brick. He went right up to the door of the nearest hut, and bashed the padlock with it, three or four times. The padlock sprang open and dropped off.
"My grandfather showed me how to do that. He used to break into German food stores during the war."
"Sounds a handy kind of character to have around."
"Oh, he was, when he wasn't pissed. The trouble was, he was pissed twenty-three hours a day, and the rest of the time he had a hangover."
They swung open the door of the hut. Inside, the atmosphere was solid with sweat and stale tobacco smoke and the rank smell of demolition and disturbed soil. The light that shone through the dust-encrusted windows picked out a table crowded with dirty coffee mugs, coffee- stained newspapers and tin lids overflowing with cigarette butts. The walls were stuck with pinups. One huge-breasted girl sported a felt-tip mustache just like Lech Walesa and the caption "Miss Poland."
In the far corner, beside a scarred collection of hard hats, Marek found a big canvas holdall. He rummaged through hammers, drill bits, crowbars and screwdrivers, and at last produced a flashlight. He shone it up into his own face, so that he looked like a thin grinning ghoul.
They walked back to the brink of the basement and shone the flashlight into the darkness. They saw cascades of rubble, and an overturned chair, but there was no sign of anything alive.
"Nothing," said Marek. "Just the wind, probably."
But as they were about to leave, they heard it again, the same crying, but much more distinctly this time.
"Are you sure it's a cat?" Jan asked. "Maybe we should call the police."
"Why don't we take a quick look? Herewe can climb down this brickwork."
"Well, I'll go down first," Jan volunteered. "You point the flashlight so that I can see where I'm going."
Jan knelt down on the concrete-strewn edge of the basement, and carefully felt behind him for toeholds. He found one, and then another, and the rubble seemed quite firm. He slid a little way, but he was able to snatch at a large chunk of brick and stop himself from slipping any further.
He swung his left foot from side to side, trying to find another toehold. His shoe caught on a protruding timber, partly wrapped in chicken wire. He tried his weight on it, and it seemed to hold, so he lowered himself a few feet further. He rested for a moment, clinging to the rubble, breathing heavily.
"Hey, are you all right?" called Marek.
"Fine. Just out of condition, that's all."
He thought he heard a whimpering sound; and then another. But after that, he could hear nothing but his own harsh panting, andbeyond the hoardingsthe weary grinding of home-going traffic. He was beginning to think he was mad, climbing down here to look for a child who was probably a cat. Up above him, Marek lit another cigarette and blew smoke into the evening breeze.
"Come on, now," he urged himself, under his breath. He swung his right foot around, but he couldn't feel another toehold anywhere. He would have to try sliding down the rubble a short way, in the hope that he would find one farther down.
His heart thumped and he could hear his blood pumping in his ears. He let himself slip half a meter, then a little further, his fingernails digging into the dust and the disintegrated mortar, trying to stop himself from sliding too far. Two or three meters down, he found another toehold, and then another. It couldn't be much further now. In fact, he was congratulating himself when a heavy lump of concrete gave way beneath his right foot and he found himself sliding uncontrollably down the rest of the rubble, clawing at anything he could.
He hit the basement floor so hard that he was convinced for a moment that he had broken his back. He lay there for a while, too jolted by his fall even to grunt.
"Heyare you all right?" Marek called.
Jan managed to lift himself up onto one elbow, and then roll himself over into a kneeling position. "I don't think anything's broken," he called back. "Just winded."
He stood up and banged dust from the sleeves of his jacket. "I'm okay. I'm just going to take a look around."
He made a slow circuit of the basement, peering into crevices and alcoves and dust-filled ventilation shafts. On one wall, a torn sheet of wallpaper still fluttered. On another, there was a faded red scrawl "Basi," whatever that meant. Marek followed him from above, walking around the rim of the basement, shining the flashlight down from one side of the room to the other.
"See anything?" asked Marek.
"Not yet. But these basements are all joined together. I'm going to try the next one."
All of the basement doors had been torn off, so that he could see into the next room, where there were stacks of broken packing cases and collapsed wine racks.
He crunched across a thick carpet of brick dust and pulverized glass. Marek kept on flicking the flashlight around, but there was no sign of anything moving.
Jan looked upward, and began to wonder how he was going to climb out of here. Maybe there was a ladder in one of the other rooms, or a heap of rubble that was easier to scale. He walked through to the next room, and then turned right into the next, and it was then that he heard the crying again, much more clearly than he had before. It sounded as if it were coming from the opposite side of the room, so he whistled to Marek and called, "Over here! I can hear it again!"
Marek swept the flashlight beam across the basement floor and illuminated the opposite wall. It was still filled with shelves, some of them stacked with dusty jugs and empty pickle jars and rusted colanders. But right in the very corner of the room, there was a triangular hole in the floor, a little less than two meters across, and it was out of this hole that the crying was echoing.
Jan approached it, and peered down it, but it was too dark to see anything. The sewage-smelling breeze was coming from here, too; and he could hear water gurgling.
"It's here!" he called. "It's definitely here!"
"Is it a child, or what?"
"I don't know. Why don't you throw down the flashlight?"
"Do you want me to call the gliniarze?"
"Let me take a look first."
Marek came right to the edge of the basement and tossed down the flashlight. "Just be careful," he said.
Jan went back to the hole in the floor and shone the flashlight into it. He could see curved concrete piping, thick with whitish slime, and some broken rubble which must have fallen into the sewer when the excavator broke into it. He could also see a small knitted doll, with a serious, frowning face. She must have been wearing a maroon dress once, but now it was greasy and gray.
"Hallo!" he shouted. "Can you hear me? If you're trapped in there, I can go for help! Don't panic! I can find somebody to get you out!"
He paused. The crying went on, although it sounded further away now. The smell from the sewer was almost overwhelming, but he knelt down beside it and leaned over as far as he could.
"Hallo!" he shouted. "Hallo, down there! Can you hear me?"
There was another screamhigh-pitched and drawn out. The sewer pipe distorted it so that it sounded like a slide whistle.
"Jesus," said Marek. "What the hell's happening down there?"
"I think I'd better find out," Jan told him. "You call the police, and the ambulance, too."
"You're not going down there?"
"I've got the flashlight."
"Yes, but supposing"
"I don't know. Supposing there's somebody down there?"
"Like who? It's only a kid. She's probably stuck, that's all."
Marek hesitated for a while. Then he said, "Okay. I'll call the gliniarze."
Jan took a deep breath, and then retched because of the smell. But he gripped the flashlight tighter, and made his way right to the very edge of the broken sewer. He knelt down, and cautiously backed his way toward the hole, until he was able to swing his legs down into it. The first thing he felt when he reached the bottom of the pipe was cold sewage filling his shoes: he hadn't realized it was going to be so deep.
"Shit," he said, under his breath.
The pipe was a little over one and three quarter meters in diameter, which gave him just enough room to crouch his way along it. He took out his handkerchief and tied it around his face like a bandit. He wished he had some aftershave. Anything had to be better than the smell of greasy human excrement. He couldn't imagine how the Resistance had tolerated spending so much time in the sewers during the war.
"Hallo!" he called. "Can you hear me! I'm coming to rescue you! Just stay where you are! Don't move, and keep on calling out to me!"
He listened, but there was no reply. Stillthe child hadn't sounded as if it were very far away, and how complicated could the sewers be? They followed the pattern of the streets, so they must be straightforward, and there were dozens of manholes, in case he needed to climb out of them somewhere else. With his head bowed, he made his way along the pipe, his shoes plashing in the sewage. The flashlight threw curved patterns of light against curved concrete, and gremlin-like shadows that hopped and danced with every step he took.
"Hallo!" he kept on calling, and his voice boomed back to him, filling his ears.
He turned awkwardly around to see how far he had come. The arc lamp faintly illuminated the broken pipe where he had entered. He felt as if he had been hunching his way along the sewer for at least five minutes, but he had probably gone no further than crossing Krowleska. His eyes were watering and his nose was running, but he was beginning to grow accustomed to the stench. It was worse when his uncle Henryk came to stay, and spent twenty minutes perched on the toilet every morning, reading Gazeta Wyborcza from cover to cover and filling the room with the stink of beer and yesterday's sauerkraut.
He carried on, grunting with effort. Every now and then he stopped to rest, and to call out, "I'm coming! Can you hear me? I'm coming!" His voice echoed and re-echoed until it was so distorted that it sounded as if somebody else were in the sewers, calling him.
After two hundred meters, the noise of running water began to grow louder. He crouched along a little further, and then abruptly the narrow pipe in which he had made his way from the demolition site opened out into a huge echoing concrete chamber, nearly twelve meters deep, with a curving channel of thick sewage gushing through the middle of it. Waste poured into here from all the main streets around here, and flowed off rapidly south-eastward toward the River Vistula.
Jan stood above the chamber, shining his flashlight into each of the arches. If he wanted to explore the sewers any further, he was going to have to wade knee-deep, and he wasn't going to attempt that without boots. He called out. "I'm here! I can't go any further! If you can hear me, tell me where you are!"
He waited, and listened, but all he could hear was the endless rushing of water. He didn't want to be cowardly, but he had come this far without finding anything, and only a saint or a madman would have carried on.
If there had been a child down here, he decided, it had obviously found its own way out.
He was about to turn back, however, when the sewage-filled channel below him suddenly churned. There was a moment's thrashing, and then a figure burst out of the watera small figure plastered in graya figure that opened its mouth and screamed at him aaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhh!
Jan jerked back in terror, and jarred his shoulder against the sewer pipe. The figure was so thickly covered in sewage that it was impossible for him to tell whether it was a boy or a girl. But there was one thing he could tell: it had no arms. It had raised itself out of the water on its knees, and now it was wagging itself backward and forward and letting out bubble-filled screams of unimaginable agony.
Jan screamed back at it, "Wait! Wait! I'm coming to get you out! Wait!"
There was a flight of deeply-rusted rungs which led down from his own sewer pipe to the bottom of the chamber. He turned himself around and started to climb down them. The figure kept on screaming and screaming; but before he was halfway down, the pipes let out a huge gurgling gush, and hundreds of litres of fresh sewage cascaded into the chamber, and swept the figure into the channel, and under the nearest arch.
Jan clung onto the rungs while the chilly sewage swallowed his feet and rushed around his knees. He saw soggy rafts of toilet paper and swirls of every imaginable shade of brown. He saw a drowned rat, too, but no further sign of the figure that had risen up out of the channel and screamed at him.
As quickly as he could, he climbed back up the ladder and into the pipe. He still couldn't really understand what he had seen. A child, with no arms; or a dog, with no legs; or even a seal, maybe, that had found its way into the sewers, from the river.
Coughing, he started to make his way back along the sewer. All he wanted to do now was to get out of here. His back was aching from bending over for so long. His head was thumping. He felt a rising sense of panic, as if the figure in the sewer had managed to wriggle its way up the rusty rungs like the caterpillar man from Freaks to follow him. He hopped, and crouched, and hit his head again and again; and he kept thinking that he must be nearly there, he must be nearly there. But the sewer pipe seemed to have mysteriously lengthened. He couldn't even see the hazy aura of the arc lamp.
After two or three minutes he had to stop, and bend over, his hands on his knees, trying to catch his breath. His stomach kept on tightening and he retched a long string of chocolate-streaked saliva, but that was all.
He dragged out his handkerchief and wiped his face. He told himself to calm down. That couldn't have been a child, back in the sewage chamber. It was a dog, most likely, that had accidentally strayed into a ventilation shaft or an outlet. How could a child get deep down into the sewers?
Whatever it was, it couldn't possibly be following him. It was mutilated, drowned, and washed away. All he had to do now was find his way out of this pipe and get himself cleaned up.
He started to crouch his way along again, sweeping the flashlight from side to side. He was worried that in his panic to escape he might have taken a wrong turning, a turning that had no way out. It was a nightmarish thought that he could spend weeks desperately trying to find his way out of an ever-narrowing labyrinth of sewers. He imagined being trapped in a narrow pipe right beneath the massive weight of the Palace of Culture and Science, his flashlight battery failing, and darkness closing in.
But it was only a few more minutes before he saw the dim light coming from the place where the pipe was broken, and he said his first prayer since his mother had died. "Holy Mother thank you for delivering me from harm. I beg your protection from despair, and from all evil things."
It was then that he heard the noise.
He stopped, and listened. At first, he couldn't make out anything but the trickling of water, and the soft, melancholy booming of air as huge drafts blew along the main sewers. They sounded like massive beasts, calling to each other.
But then he heard it again. A thick, leathery shuffling noise, as if somebody were dragging a soft but heavy bag along the sewer pipe.
He turned around, and shone his flashlight back the way he had come. It was difficult to see if there was anything there, because of all the shadows, and the scimitar-shaped reflections. But the odd thing was that the reflections seemed to stop, about fifty meters from where he was standing, and the sewage that flowed in herringbone patterns along the bottom gully no longer glittered. It looked as if something was actually blocking the tunnel. Something very big, and dark, that deadened all reflections and allowed no light to pass.
Something that made a shuffling noise, because it was coming his way.
Jan began to back away. He didn't like this at all. Maybe that small screaming figure in the sewage-chamber couldn't have come after him. But what was this?
He kept on backing and backing, shining the flashlight toward the shadowy shape that was following him. He tripped once or twice on uneven pipe joints, and he had to trail one hand along the wall of the sewer to guide himself even though he could feel that it was coated in excreted fat.
Anything big enough to block up the whole pipe couldn't move fast. That's what he reassured himself. But with a hundred meters still to go to reach the break in the pipe, he began to have the unnerving feeling that this thing was gaining on him. It might be heavy, but it moved with remarkable speed. He could hear the shuffling coming nearer and nearer, and it was almost like a train bearing down on him.
He stopped, one hand balancing him against the side of the pipe, and said "No!"and then "No!" again, as if he could make this all stop happening simply by not believing in it.
It couldn't be true. He had heard all kinds of stories about pets being flushed down toilets into the sewers, and growing to giant size on a rich diet of human excrementalligators and turtles and even Christmas carp that nobody in the family could bear to kill. But they were stories, right? They were legends.
If this was anything, this was a man; and Jan could stand up to any man.
The shuffling slowed; but still it came nearer.
"Who are you?" Jan called. "Why are you following me?"
The shuffling was slower and slower; but still it came nearer.
"Can't you speak?" Jan demanded. "Who are you? Listenyou don't have to be frightened."
The shadowy thing was only a few meters away now, but Jan's flashlight was dimming, the bulb was little more than an orange wink, and the thing was so dark that it seemed to absorb light rather than reflect it.
Jan said, "What do you want? I'm not afraid of you."
He thought he could hear breathing, of a kind. Tuneless, patient breathing. Then he heard another shuffle, and a sound like an old, musty velvet curtain being slowly dragged down. There was a smell, too, which he could distinguish even above the cloying smell of sewage.
It was a smell like very bad meat; like rabbit that had been left hanging for too long.
"You're not frightening me," said Jan. "You're just a man."
All the same, he started to back away again, glancing quickly behind him to see how far he had to go. If he bent his head down and really made a run for it, he was sure that he could reach the opening in the pipe before the shadowy thing, or man, or whatever it was, caught up with him. In any case, maybe it, or he, was harmless. Maybe it had followed him along the pipe for no other reason than curiosity. Maybe it, or he, was just a tramp, who used the sewers as a shelter. Maybe he was deaf, or dumb, and that was why he didn't speak.
Or maybe not.
Jan took one step back, and then another. His pace quickened, but he was still too scared to turn his back on the shadowy thing and make a run for it. The shuffling and the sliding noises quickened, too, and Jan had the impression not just of one heavy sack being dragged through the pipe, but many. Many, heavy, and horribly soft, as if they held things that you wouldn't like to touch. As if they were sodden, too.
The shadowy thing was advancing so fast now that Jan stumbled. He went down on one knee, but he managed to pull himself up, and twist around, and that was when he started running. His head bowed, his hands outstretched to guide him through the suffocating pipe, his feet making a chop-chop-chop noise as he ran through the water.
He reached the broken opening. The arc lamp blazed directly in his eyes and dazzled him. Gasping, he gripped the shattered edges of the pipe and tried to heave himself up into the fresh air. He was charged with adrenaline, but he was panicking, too, and he lost his grip and fell heavily back into the pipe. Soil and fragments of concrete showered down on him, half-blinding him, and filling his mouth.
Whether it was man or beast, the shadowy thing didn't give him a second chance. He was trying to get a grip on the greasy concrete when he was hit with the force of a speeding car. He was knocked three or four meters further along the sewer, out of reach of the opening.
He tried to get up. He was so dazed that he slipped over; and then slipped again. He coughed, as if he were going to say something.
But instantly, his neck was seized, and he was thrown against the side of the sewer so violently that he heard his skull crack. Something huge and impossibly heavy climbed on top of him, and kept him pinned against the curving floor, with sewer water gushing against the side of his face. There was a momentary tussle, and then his whole head was dragged into what felt like a wet leather bag. He breathed in, trying to shout out, but his nose and mouth filled up with thick, curdled mucus. The stench of rotten meat was overwhelming, but he couldn't breathe and he couldn't speak. All he could do was wrestle and struggle and try to kick out at whatever it was that had taken hold of him. But it was just like kicking at curtains. The thing seemed to be nothing but fabric, and completely empty underneath.
He choked for air. He wanted to cry out for his mother, to tell her what was happening to him, but he couldn't. He kicked at his assailant again, but that was all he could manage.
I'm dying I'm dying I'm dying don't let me die.
But then he felt a sharp, painful blow to the side of his throat; and then another; and then another.
And his very last thought was: Oh Mary, Mother of God. He's cutting my head, off.
Copyright © 1997 by Graham Masterton
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I've been a very big fan of Masterton for years now. He was the best horror author I ever read, beating King, Koontz and McCammon. Yet this book wasn't up to his usual standards at all. Oh, his writing style is still the same - it's just not as scary as is his wont. To me, King lost his ability to tell a good horror story, beginning with 'Thinner'. They all started reading more like regular fiction than horror. 'The House that Jack Built' actually made me feel scared when I read it at late night, in bed. I'm very concerned that Masterton may be losing his touch as I've seen happen to good horror writers. I'm also pretty disappointed because I've been waiting for a sequel to 'Night Warriors' (can't remember if that's the right title) so I can see what happened to that baby born of a Night warrior and a demon. It floated away at the very end...