Japp looked back up at the heavy stone slab sliding shut above him and ruled out any attempts at a last-minute Indiana Jones-style dash through the closing gap. He would have had to launch himself up steep steps strewn with ankle-breaking debris for a start, past plastic drums of dubious origin and, frankly, he didn’t think he was fit enough. Years of driving to crime scenes, interspersed with hours spent behind a desk, had given him the sort of fitness levels you might expect from a semi-comatose sloth and he’d need to be at least half-awake gazelle to make that fast-disappearing gap. Besides, he thought, I’m not dressed for it. Martha neglected to make me buy a Fedora, leather jacket and whip. Strange that, given how well she prepared me for everything else in the forest – almost as if she wasn’t expecting me to be such an idiot as to get myself trapped down some sort of secret passageway.
First things first – how to get out? Japp took his phone from his pocket and wasn’t unduly surprised to see that there was no signal down here. It wasn’t quite 10:45 yet, and Martha wasn’t due back at the clearing before 11. He turned on his torch app to see if there were any obvious levers to pull to open the hearthstone from inside. After a couple of seconds he decided to look for some less obvious levers or buttons. He saw a door off to one side, but opening it revealed just a small square room with more of the plastic barrels and, at the back, some old wooden barrels that had collapsed within their metal hoops. As he turned to go back to the passageway Japp realised that he was starting to feel dizzy – time to find another way out of here then. No point waiting here for a rescue that might not find him in time. He paused to take a photograph of the label on one of the drums, then set off.
The passageway stretched out straight, so far as he could tell, so to conserve his battery Japp decided to turn off the phone and feel his way along before scoping out the next section. As he walked along, one hand on either side of the tunnel and his head brushing the roof he was relieved that the chemical fumes were dissipating and that it was dry underfoot. The mortar between the bricks was a little crumbly under his fingertips, but apart from that the construction seemed sound. He started to wonder how old it was, and why it had been built, and turned his torch on again briefly.
The tunnel had straight sides but a curved roof, so looking down it was like staring into a never-ending archway. The bricks didn’t look brand new, but beyond that Japp was unable to tell how old they might be. On a whim he took a photo of the brickwork – he had no idea if it would tell him anything useful or not, assuming he did get out of here, but it seemed silly not to. Maybe he could go and ask Joe what he knew about secret tunnels, although the thought of another two hour lecture made him decide to find another local expert if possible.
As Japp continued in the dark once more he felt more doorways between his fingertips. He searched each one briefly, aware that his battery wouldn’t last too long if he overused it. The first few led to rooms that were mostly empty, with the occasional broken wooden barrel for variety. Not that there was much variety in the barrels, everyone he saw looked to be the same age and state of brokenness as the last. Before he could puzzle over that too long Japp noticed that there was a change. The doors he came across now were more modern; no longer the worm-eaten boards roughly nailed together-type, but more the sort of thing you might get down at the local hardware hypermarket – albeit hacked about to fit the short doorways. These had very modern, and very sturdy-looking hasps, with accompanying staples on the wall. No padlocks, though. Very strange. Quick glances showed that these rooms were empty of barrels. They were just empty, in fact.
The tunnel had been gently sloping downhill since the start, not that Japp had paid much attention to it, but it now turned back up again, and his legs noticed that. The walls changed under his fingertips too, they were rougher and seemed less well-made. Another quick burst of torchlight confirmed what his hands had told him. He could also see a door in front of him, but it was easily pushed open.
On the other side Japp found himself in what looked like a cellar. It had racks that looked like they should have dusty bottles of port and claret aging on them, but they were empty and pushed to the sides to leave the centre of the room clear to another door on the far side. Japp was through it and up the stairs before it occurred to him that there might be anyone up there not pleased to see him, but as it was the house he found himself in looked, and sounded, abandoned. Not very recently, but thoroughly. It didn’t feel damp and the lights worked when he flipped a switch, so he guessed it had been occupied until not too long ago. It was, though, completely empty and was the cleanest house he had ever seen. He sniffed, and thought he could detect both fresh paint and cleaning fluid. This, he thought, is most peculiar.
He had no mobile signal inside the house. Of course, he thought wearily. Why on earth should I expect to use my phone here? He went outside and found that the house as at the end of what looked like a very quiet country lane. There were old barns and outbuildings, so it looked like an old farm, but it was suspiciously quiet and lacking any sign of farming activity. There were no tractors, no cows, no straw bales – not even a farm cat.
The lane was only single track, sunken between trees that closed over it making it look like another tunnel. Japp groaned. He’d had more than enough of tunnels for one day. Still, there was nothing for it. He had to carry on walking.