by Anne Light
An unusual request leads you to a place you've never visited before.
Last Tuesday, I was just polishing the buttons of my haberdashery collection, I received the following letter with my mail:
Dear Mr Quaintick,
I request your help in an urgent matter. Several mysterious deaths have occurred in our community. Please meet me this afternoon behind the furnace in the basement of 95, Fenton St., at five o'clock.
I pondered whether to oblige him or ignore the letter, but it seemed unkind to leave somebody in distress and accordingly, I went.
I took the bus early, so I arrived in good time. 95, Fenton St. was a run-down, six-story building. The color was indefinable, and several cracks showed in the facade. A sign in a window announced a shop for rent.
The door stood open and I proceeded downstairs. Another door, unlocked, led to a store room. I found a light-switch and perceived the furnace at the end of the room. There wasn't much space behind it, and, after checking my watch, I called out for Mr. Rhet.
“You have to climb through the hole.” The voice was high and whispery.
Indeed, when I looked closer, there was a crack in the wall. I had to make myself very small to pass through. On the other side, it was dark. I got up and brushed the dust from my suit.
“Very good of you to come, Mr Quaintick,” the voice said, “this way, please.”
Since I could not see, I followed his footfalls. He led me down a flight of stairs and along several corridors. Water dripping from the ceiling gave a melodious background to the rhythmical sound of our steps. The air was cold and filled with a foul smell.
Finally he said: “We are here. Will you light the candle, please?”
As I did so, I found myself in a cave due to a few missing stones in the brick-work. Though the air was damp, the ceiling, if it may be called thus, was dry. In one corner, there was a nest made of rags and paper. On top of it, a rat was shaking with spasms.
“My wife is in labour,” Mr Rhet said.
“Good evening, ma'am.” I received no answer.
Mr Rhet led me to a similar nest and offered me a seat.
“If you would hold this for a second,” Mr Rhet said, handing me the candle, “I'll be right back.”
I dropped wax on the floor and held the candle upright. Meanwhile, I inspected the nest. Shreds of newspaper formed a pool. I lifted one. It read “onday, 24th of Apr”. Today was the 25th.
“I thought, you might want some refreshments.” Mr Rhet offered me a mixture of grains. “Are you comfortable, Mr Quaintick?”
“Thank you.” I crossed my legs and leaned back to confirm my words. After some conventional pleasantries, I felt it was time to mention the letter.
“Yes, we are very concerned. We have an unusually high death rate these days. Several members of our community have become sick and died within a couple of days.” His labials lacked clarity due to his protruding front teeth, yet, he spoke with practiced ease.
“How long has this been going on?” I inquired.
“For two weeks. At first, we thought it was a virus, but now we suspect food poisoning.”
“Food poisoning?” I inspected the grain of wheat, on which I had been nibbling.
“No, this is safe. My cousin brought it from a closed bag. He chewed through the plastic himself. We can't be too careful. We warned the children not to eat anything they find on the ground.”
“Have you seen any unusual activities?”
“Now that you mention it, there has been a lot of movement recently. And someone did leave boxes with food around. Let me show you.”
As we walked out of the brick cave, I looked towards Mrs. Rhet. Three small bodies nestled at her side, yet, the spasms hadn't stopped.
Again we entered the canal system under the city. This time I could see for I had taken the candle. The constant dripping of water threatened the flame, so I guarded it with my hand. As we were walking alongside a slow river of water and dirt, I perceived the unmistakable stench of human feces. After several turns, I couldn't have found my way back, we climbed a flight of stairs and entered a building through a hole in the wall.
It appeared to be the basement of a grocery-shop. Shelves containing vegetable boxes stood against the walls. In the center aisle, sacks were piled. Mr Rhet showed me a box. Purple grains scattered inside.
“Do you think these could be the the cause of the deaths?”
“It certainly looks like conventional rat poison.” I answered.
“Are you saying that this is not a singular occurrence?”
I coughed non-committally.
“But this is genocide!” Mr Rhet exclaimed.
Sounds of steps spared me an answer. Mr Rhet dragged me behind a box of radishes just before a man in work-clothes entered, carrying a bucket and a trowel. Only now I discovered a pile of bricks next to the hole, through which we had arrived.
“He's going to close it,” I explained to Mr. Rhet.
“Then we'll have to say good-bye,” said Mr. Rhet, ran to the hole, and jumped through.
I waited until the man had finished his work. Then I followed him out of the building, enlarged myself to my usual size, and took the bus home.
Yesterday, while I was dusting the egg-timer on the mantelpiece, I received another letter:
Dear Mr. Quaintick,
Please help us. We believe our lives are in danger. A murderous attack is imminent. Please meet me at 156, Pillsbury Rd., at 4 pm. I'll await you under the floorboards in the kitchen.
I didn't answer the letter. I couldn't trust anybody who lives under floorboards.