Venom

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Horror  |  House: Booksie Classic
Rachel has been on a vision quest in the tunnels of Abton. She's found the treasure but has woken its guardian, and is now cursed. She must kill, and keep on killing. Desperate measures are clearly in order.

Submitted: June 23, 2017

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Submitted: June 23, 2017

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“OK, listen up everyone,” tall, aristocratic Milo said, turning round at the end of the narrow tunnel.  “The stairs are steep, so take care.  Without waiting for a reply he began to descend the uneven steps.  Deborah, his bony, redheaded girlfriend, quickly followed.  Little Susan edged forward, her torch swinging wildly from side to side.  Cautiously, she put a tiny foot on the first step and grimaced.  Then she too began her hesitant descent.  Monty, her tousle-haired, broad-shouldered partner, shuffled behind her.

Randy swore softly in the darkness.  Twisting, he shone his torch into Rachel's eyes, causing her to squint.  "You all right, girl?" he asked breathlessly.

"Yes," she lied.

He heaved a sigh.  "Let's do it then."  He inched forward, his back pressed against the filthy tunnel wall.  A shudder rippled through his body as he reached the head of the stairs and peered down.  

Rachel watched him bite his lower lip, torchlight glinting off his damp forehead.  She could smell his fear.  "Go on," she whispered, "it'll be all right."  Nodding uncertainly, Randy put a tentative foot on the first step.  Taking a huge lungful, he began to work his way down the worn steps, his hand scrabbling across the rough wall.

Not wishing to panic Randy, Rachel stood back, waited for him to disappear.  She hated Abton's fabled tunnels.  More than once she'd fancied she'd heard something loathsome scuttling away in the clammy darkness.  Only her fear of ridicule had made her keep silent.

Conscious of how alone she felt, Rachel tiptoed to the stairs, the soft brick of the tunnel giving way to living rock.  She could hear the dull thud of footsteps echoing up the steep stairwell as she shone the beam of her torch into the inky darkness.  Crossing herself swiftly, she began to make her way gingerly downwards, her breathes puncturing the gloom like little staccato explosions.  

Ahead she could hear Randy cursing.  His small wiry body, clad in a green bomber jacket and blue jeans, was just visible.  Hunched over, he was concentrating on keeping his balance.  "Thirteen, fourteen, fifteen," she muttered quietly, counting each step in turn.  Randy's dark hair, needing a wash, glistened below his jauntily positioned cap.  "Twenty one, twenty two, twenty three," she intoned.  Randy let out a yelp of joy as he reached the bottom.  "Thirty, thirty one, thirty two."  Now she was at the bottom also.  With a sigh of relief, she skipped across the uneven floor to where the others stood, waiting, illuminated by the light from their torches.

Milo surveyed the little group.  In his early thirties, he stood with one hand in the pocket of his charcoal grey blazer.  "Ladies and gentlemen," he began proprietarily, "welcome to the Chapel."  With a flourish he swung his torch around the compact, square chamber.  Strange symbols leapt off the walls as the beam swept across them.  "We believe it was fashioned from a natural cavern, possibly in Medieval times."  He pointed to a rectangular stone platform at its centre.  "If you would kindly climb on here, Rachel," he said, "we can begin."

"What?" Rachel spluttered.

Milo frowned and shone his torch full in her face.  "So you can enter a trance state, as agreed."  He took something out of his blazer pocket and held it up.  "You'll need to drink the contents of this bottle."

Rachel pointed her torch at Randy.  "What's he talking about?" she asked indignantly.  "I haven't agreed to do anything."

"Err, well," Randy stuttered, "I told him about your visions, see.  And, err, well, it seems you're exactly what he's been looking for."

"Really!" Rachel replied icily.  "You went blabbing about my visions, when I told you never to mention them to anyone.  And what's this about going into a trance?"

"I'm sorry, love, it just came out," he said, shrugging.  "And I didn't mention about the trance because I didn't want to scare you."

"You didn't want to scare me.  How nice of you.  And what if I don't want to drink his shit?"

"Look," Randy wheedled, "it won't hurt you.  And I ..., we, need the money."

"What money?" Rachel asked suspiciously.  Randy stood, eyes averted, looking like a guilty schoolboy.  Rachel swung the beam of her torch at Milo.  "What money is he talking about?"

"Rachel," Milo drawled, "Randy assured me you understood.  We're here to find the Abton Treasure.  This," he said, showing her the small bottle, "contains a powerful psychotropic drug that will put you into a deep trance.  Your consciousness, your spirit, will be able to leave your body and search for it.  Somewhere down here a fabulous treasure lies buried, I'm sure of it.  All we need is the exact location and we'll all be rich, and famous."

"Think about it, love," Randy butted in, "we'll never have to work again.  We'll be set up for life.  Just take a swig of that stuff and it'll be easy street for us both."

"I don't want to drink it," Rachel snapped, "I don't know what's in it.  It might kill me."

"Please, Rachel," Milo interrupted, "I wouldn't offer it you if I thought it was unsafe.  Substances like this have been used by shamans for thousands of years.  Their properties are well understood."

"Maybe," Rachel replied, "but how do I know that stuff's safe?  There could be anything in there."

Milo gave her a reassuring smile.  "Ask Monty and Susan," he said, "they concocted it."

"Is this true?" she shone her torch at Monty.  "You made it?"

"Err, yes."  Monty grinned sheepishly, his green eyes flashing in the torchlight.  "In the lab when no one was around."  He put an arm round Susan's slender waist and hugged her.  "We both worked on it, didn't we?" he said, smiling at the blond.  Susan nodded silently.  "And we tested it on a couple of rats," he continued.  "They both had a good snooze and woke up right as rain."

"See," Randy said, "it's harmless."

"But I don't want to go into a trance," Rachel replied.  "Not down here.  This place gives me the creeps.  What if something goes wrong?  I don't want to go floating off down these tunnels and find I can't get back."

Milo cut in quickly.  "I assure you, Rachel," he said unctuously, "there's nothing to fear.  You will automatically re-enter your body when the drug wears off."

Rachel shook her head.  "But I don't want to take it," she said stubbornly.  "I never agreed to this."

"Rachel has a point," Monty said quietly.  "If she's not happy, I think we should forget it."

Susan nodded in agreement.  "Yes, stop bullying her."

"Come on love," Randy whined, "do it for me.  Please!  I owe people money."

"What?" Rachel said, spinning round.  "You owe money?  You never told me."

"Please," he pleaded, "help me out."

There was a deathly silence as everyone looked at Rachel.  Suddenly self-conscious, she felt her resolve weakening.  "OK," she heard herself say, "if it's safe?"

"I assure you it's safe, Rachel," Milo said quickly.  Seizing his opportunity, he twisted the cap off the brown glass bottle and held it out to her.  "All you need do is drink this."

With a shaking hand, Rachel took the bottle and put it to her lips.  Screwing her eyes shut, she took a deep breath and drank.  "Yuck!" she blurted out, recoiling at the bitter taste, "that tasted horrible."  No one spoke.  She stood blinking, a buzzing noise growing louder in her ears.  Thinking it was an angry wasp, she raised her hand to swat it away.  The glass bottle slipped from her nerveless fingers and splintered on the stone floor.  Reeling, she let her torch fall.  Spiralling into darkness, she tipped forward into Randy's arms.

***

"Christ," Randy gasped, staggering backwards, "somebody help me with her, quick."  Monty shot forward and grabbed Rachel by the waist.  Randy grunted.  "What the fuck do we do with her now?"

"Place her on the dais," Milo commanded.

"You what?" Randy asked, confused.

"Put her on the alter," Monty whispered.

"Oh!" Randy replied morosely.  "Why the fuck didn't he say so then?"  Panting, he helped Monty lift the limp body of Rachel onto the stone platform.  Standing back, he watched as Monty straightened her legs, put her arms by her sides, and smoothed the creases from her red fleece jacket.  When Monty had finished, Randy turned to Milo.  "Now what do we do?" he asked.

"Now we wait, you idiot," Milo snapped back at him.

The wait was long and tedious.  Finally, to Randy's relief, Deborah pulled a packet of cigarettes from her tan coat pocket and extracted one.  He saw Milo scowl as she placed the cigarette between her thin, glossy lips and take out a pink lighter.  "You can't light that thing here."

Deborah lit the cigarette with a slow, deliberate movement, drew on it deeply, smiled frostily, and removed it from her lips.  "Fuck you!" she hissed at  Milo.

"This is a heritage site," Milo barked, "you can't smoke here."

"Just watch me," Deborah snorted.  She drew on the cigarette again and blew a cloud of smoke in his direction.  "You do realise we've been waiting here for two solid hours?" she said.  "How much longer before that bitch wakes up?"

"For however long it takes."

"Really, and for how much longer do you expect the batteries in these torches to last?  Can't you see they're getting dim?  Do you expect to find your way out in pitch darkness?"

"She's right," Randy cut in, "the torches are getting dim."

Deborah drew on her cigarette and let it fall, a shower of sparks flaring as it hit the floor.  She placed the heel of a bright red trainer on the glowing butt and ground it out furiously.  What a ball breaker, Randy thought, feeling a little twinge of sympathy for her boyfriend.  He watched as Deborah stepped briskly to Rachel and lifted the comatose woman's wrist.  After a few seconds Deborah shook her head.  "The bitch hasn't got a pulse," she said.  Bending close to Rachel's face, she waited.  "I can't feel her breath either."  She placed a hand on Rachel's forehead.  "And she's really cold."

"What does that mean?" Randy asked.

Deborah straightened and gave him a contemptuous look.  "It means the little cow's dead, you fuckwit."

"Oh!" Randy blinked.  "You don't know that," he retorted combatively, "she's supposed to be in a trance."

"Yeah, right," Deborah sneered at him, "so see how long you last without a heart beat.  I'm a student nurse, for fuck's sake," she shouted, "so give me a break."  She turned to Milo.  "You've killed her, you idiot," she said witheringly.  "You've gone and killed the bitch."

Milo shook his head vigorously.  "No!" he shouted, "that's impossible.  The formulation was correct.  Monty tested it."

"Yeah," Deborah said triumphantly, "but the dose matters, you clot.  If you gave her too much, she's a goner."

"Christ, you killed her man," Randy wailed, "what we gonna do?"

"We have to call an ambulance," Susan blurted out.

"Right," Deborah scoffed, "and flush our futures down the toilet.  The cops will be crawling all over this.  And what do you think the university's going to do?  Give us a pat on the back?"

"We don't have to give our names," Susan replied.

Deborah smiled wryly.  "If we call it in," she replied acidly, "the cops will know she wasn't alone.  They'll come looking for him," she said, pointing at Randy.  "How long, do you think, before he lands us all in the shit?  He'd say anything to save his arse."

All eyes turned to Randy.  "No, I wouldn't," he protested, shaking his head vehemently.

"Yes you would," Milo answered him curtly, "you'd blab your head off."

"What we do," Deborah said firmly, "is leave her and say nothing.  Let everyone think she came down here alone.  With a bit of luck the cops will think it's suicide."  She bent down and picked up her cigarette butt.  "We put her on the floor and leave everything else as it is."

"Why put her on the floor?" Monty asked.

Deborah shook her head despairingly.  "If you were the cops, would you believe she was in a fit state to put herself neatly on that alter?  After dropping the bottle and torch on the floor, that is.  Without you and Randy, that's where she'd have ended up, remember."

"All right, Monty," Milo said, taking charge, "let's put Rachel on the floor and get out of here."

***

Rachel didn't know how long she'd been flying.  She'd woken up to find she'd become a small, brightly plumaged bird, hovering high above her body.  The others stood in a silent group, looking despondent.  Descending, Rachel called out to them.  No one responded.  She tried again, with the same result.  Why were they ignoring her, she wondered?  Realisation dawned.  They couldn’t see or hear her.  She'd become a disembodied spirit.

She panicked.  What if she couldn’t re-enter her body?  Silly woman she scolded herself.  When the effects of the drug wore off everything would be OK.  In the meantime she might as well look for the damn treasure.  She circled the ceiling twice before swooping up the stairs to the tunnels.  Everything was visible, just as if a bright light was shining everywhere.

She flew along tunnel after tunnel, scanning the walls for hidden cavities.  It was as if she was in a maze, meeting dead end after dead end.  There was no treasure, it was just a myth.  And then she saw it.

In an ancient tunnel, where stone lined the walls instead of brick, a golden light flooded the passage like dancing mist.  Rachel somersaulted.  Flying with ease through the wall, she entered a huge cavern.  Everywhere, gold and silver objects lay piled up in great heaps.  Rare stones sparkled as she flew.  A treasure beyond imagining.

Something stirred.  A scaly head surfaced amidst the glitter.  One beady eye opened and glared at her.  "Oh God!"  She'd forgotten about the Abton Worm, the dragon that guarded the treasure.  Now it was awake, and angry.  Spiralling she tried to escape, but the tunnel had disappeared.  She was trapped.

“And who might you be?” a gravelly voice boomed.  Trembling, Rachel faced the Worm.  Wide eyed, she watched as it clawed its way fully into view, scattering priceless objects right and left.  Rearing up on its hind legs, it flapped its immense wings thunderously, the noise echoing from the chamber walls like the sound of a thousand crashing waterfalls.  Its entire body was covered in vast bronze scales that clanged like cracked bells as it twisted and turned.  “Answer!” it bellowed, “or I'll scorch you with my breath.”

“Err ... I’m Rachel,” she told it.  “I didn’t mean to disturb you.”  

“Why are you here?”

Instinct warned her not to lie.  “I was sent to find the treasure."

“Really!” the beast roared, “and who has the temerity to send you to seek the Abton Treasure?”

“Milo, Randy and the others in the Chapel,” Rachel replied quickly.  “They gave me a drug to make me leave my body.  I didn’t know what they intended until I was down here.”

“Is that so,” the Worm replied thoughtfully.  “Don’t you know that all those who seek the Abton Treasure must die?”

“I only did it because Randy said he was in debt and needed money.”

“You shouldn't have listened."

“I'm sorry," Rachel said falteringly, "I didn't think.  Are you going to kill me?"

The creature contemplated her in silence.  “Your heart is pure,” it said finally, “so I will be merciful.  But you will pay a heavy price, nonetheless, for your recklessness.”  It opened its enormous mouth to reveal two brutal, curved fangs protruding from its upper jaw.  From each, droplets of sizzling amber venom fell to the floor with a plop until there was a large puddle.  “Drink until there's nothing left,” the beast ordered the shivering Rachel, “or I will kill you very, very slowly.”

Rachel did as she was told.  She landed by the pool's edge, dipped her long, slender beak in the steaming venom, and sucked tentatively.  It tasted of everything, and nothing.  She sucked and sucked until nothing remained.

“Good,” the Worm said, “very good.  Now you will go and do my killing for me.  Go and breath venom over your companions.  Defy me and you will be consumed by hunger.  A hunger so strong that you will be forced to kill.  Now go and fulfil your destiny.”

Rachel flew up, wings beating frantically, and circled.  Before her lay the tunnel once more.  With a solitary squawk, she zoomed through tunnel after tunnel until she found herself  back in the Chapel.  Without pausing she swooped into her head, and darkness.  Alone, she sat up, gasping.  A mighty shudder convulsed her body as air flooded into her starved lungs.  Searing pain scorched through her vitals.  She screamed.  Clutching her belly, she rolled her legs off the alter and tried to stand.  In agony, she bent double and tumbled backwards against the dais.  Cursing, she slid to the floor and lay writhing on the cold stone, hot tears flooding her eyes.

With time came understanding.  The others had left her.  Bastards!  Raging, she clambered to her feet and began searching for the way out.  In the enveloping darkness she moved cautiously towards the exit, arms outstretched.  Her right foot hit something hard.  Stopping, she bent down and groped with her hands until she found her fallen torch.  Straightening, she clicked the switch repeatedly.  It was dead.  Hurling it at the wall, she heard it bounce, with a thud, onto the floor.

Enough, she thought.  Before she'd been able to see everything in perfect clarity, and now she was groping in darkness?  She needed to focus.  Gradually the Chapel became visible in ghostly outline.  She ran to the stairs and climbed, swaying wildly, to the top.  Staggering, she careered through the tunnels, searching for the stairs to the exit.  In her haste she overshot and had to turn back.  She climbed the brick steps two at a time until she was in a cellar.  A further flight of steps led her to a wreaked kitchen.  Lunging across its debris strewn floor, she hurtled through an open door into daylight.  She was out.

Back in her flat, Rachel undressed and showered feverishly.  She dried herself on a big fluffy towel and dressed in clean clothes.  Entering the kitchen, she lifted down a large box of cereal from a cabinet and scooping out a big handful.  Stuffing the cereal in her mouth she wolfed it down, only to vomit it back up immediately.  Crying, she stumbled to the bedroom and flopped down on the bed.  Exhausted, she watched as evening turned to night.

She found Randy, appropriately enough, in the Flying Dragon, his back propped against the bar.  He had a pint in one hand and an underdressed blond in the other.  Rachel wondered what she had ever seen in the little rat.  Raising the glass to his lip, his gaze travelled lazily around the crowded pub until it settled on Rachel.  She watched with satisfaction as he froze, his smile melting away.  Randy pushed the blond away roughly and straightened.  Seeing Rachel bearing down, the blond showed she wasn’t so dumb by disappearing rapidly into the crowd.

“I can explain,” Randy spluttered, his face deathly pale, as Rachel came to a halt in front of him.  “It was the others.  They said you were dead.  I told them we should call an ambulance but they said no, we had to split.”  He smiled nervously.  “Honest, I didn’t want to leave you, but what could I do?”  He licked his lips and took a sip of his pint.  “But, hey,” he said, brightening, “you’re all right, so what can I get you?”

Rachel shook her head.  There was so much she wanted to say but she didn’t have the time.  Grabbing hold of his head, she kissed him hard on the lips.  His startled look gave way to one of horror.  Pushing her away, a meaningless croak bubbled past his lips.  Letting the pint glass crash to the wooden floor, he grasped his throat as a great hacking cough racked his body.

“Whore,” Randy wheezed between coughing fits, "what have you done to me?"  Blowing him a kiss, Rachel ran to the door and out into the night.  Through the closing door, she saw Randy bent double, his face brick red.  She ran along the pavement and into the road, whooping.  A car shuddered to a stop, its horn blaring.  She gave it the finger and darted across the street.

Back in her upstairs flat, she flung herself on her bed, sobbing.  Joy had turned to guilt.  She was a murdering monster.  Rachel awoke to the sight of an insipid grey dawn.  Grunting, she looked at the clock on the bedside cabinet.  It said six thirty five.  Time to get ready for the office.  Groggily, she raised herself into a sitting position.  Something wasn’t right.  The hunger had returned.

***

Jankowski was dozing at his cluttered desk when Doris interrupted him.  "David," she said over the intercom, "there's a woman on the phone that wants to talk to you.  She says it's urgent.  Shall I pass her through?"

Shaking himself awake, Jankowski looked at his watch.  It was nearly four thirty in the afternoon.  Too late to talk to anyone.  In another half hour they'd be going home.  "Say I'm busy," he replied, closing his eyes again.

"David, she's almost hysterical.  Please talk to her."

Jankowski sighed.  "All right, if you insist."  The cream telephone on his desk rang and he picked it up.  "Jankowski Investigations, how may I help you?"

"Mr Jankowski," a young woman answered, "I'm Rachel Penrose.  I believe my parents tried to hire you."

Jankowski sat upright in his old swivel chair.  "Miss Penrose, your parents are worried sick about you.  You should go and see them."

"That's impossible.  I'm in trouble and need your help."

"Miss Penrose," he said calmly, "the police would like a word with you about your boyfriend."

"I can't  see the police either.  Please, can I speak with you in private?"

"No, Miss Penrose," Jankowski said, "I don't involve myself in police business."

"You involved yourself in the Simmons case.  I know because they told my parents to contact you."

Jankowski drummed his fingers on his desk.  "That was different.  It involved a missing person.  You're linked to five unexplained deaths.  As I said, I don't involve myself in police business."

"Mr Jankowski, someone else could die."

"Is that a threat?"  

"NO!  I'm scared.  None of it's my fault."  The woman on the telephone began to sob.  "I've thought about killing myself."

"Miss Penrose, please try to stay calm.  There's no need for anyone to die."

"Yes there is, Mr Jankowski.  I'm a danger to people."

Jankowski swept a podgy hand through his greying hair.  This was getting tricky.  "Are you admitting you killed those five people?" he asked.

"Have you heard of the Abton Worm, Mr Jankowski?"

"I’ve a vague recollection of hearing about it.  Why?"

"The Abton Worm exists.  It made me kill those people.  It made me poison them with my breath."

"You poisoned them, Miss Penrose?" Jankowski asked, recalling what Steve, a serving detective sergeant, and friend, had told him.  "From what I hear, no trace of poison was found in their bodies.  Toxicology came back negative."  There was silence at the other end of the line.  "Miss Penrose, did you hear what I said?"

"Yes," the voice replied, "I heard.  So I'm in the clear?"

"Not exactly," Jankowski said.  "It's just that nobody can figure out the cause of death.  You really should talk to the police."

"No.  Please, Mr Jankowski, can we meet?"

Jankowski reflected for a moment.  Steve had asked him to pass on anything he might hear about Rachel Penrose.  "OK, Miss Penrose," he said finally, "if you can assure me I won't become victim number six, I'll meet you."

"You’ll be all right if you keep your distance, Mr Jankowski.  I got very close to the others.  There's an empty shop on Beale Street that used to sell carpets.  Go round the back and you'll find an open door.  Inside, you'll see a door down to the cellar.  In the cellar there's another door that opens onto a flight of steps.  Go down those steps and you'll be in the tunnels."

"What time would you like me to come?" Jankowski asked.

"Whatever time suits you, Mr Jankowski, but the sooner the better.  Just wait at the bottom of the steps.  I'll know when you're there.  And thank you."

The line went dead.  Jankowski put the telephone down and stretched.  Stiffly, he got up from his chair and walked over to a battered filing cabinet.  Bending, he opened the bottom drawer and took out a small flashlight. He flicked it on briefly, grunting with satisfaction when it lit up.  Kicking the drawer shut he walked back to his desk.  Opening the top  drawer he took out a notebook and pen.  Grabbing his jacket from the coat stand behind his chair, he flung it on and put the pen, notebook and flashlight in its pockets.  Taking a quick look at the sky through the grimy office window, he turned and strode to the office door.  Opening it, he stepped briskly into the outer office.

Doris, his wife, looked up.  "Shall we go, love?" Jankowski asked, yawning, "I've had enough for one day."  On the way to the car Jankowski told her about Rachel Penrose, and was forcefully informed that he was an idiot.  At home, Jankowski had something to eat, then grabbed a few hours sleep.

The woman's directions had been easy to follow.  It was past one in the morning and Jankowski was standing in a dank, narrow, brick-lined tunnel.  Save for the light from his flashlight, he was in total darkness.  Sucking cold air into his lungs, he began to have doubts.

Jankowski heard footsteps on the flagstones.  Instantly alert, he swung the beam of his flashlight in the direction of the sound.  He glimpsed a startled face, maybe twenty feet away, and an arm raised as a shield.  Jankowski muttered a hasty, "Sorry," and lowered the beam.

***

"Thank you for coming, Mr Jankowski," Rachel said.  "It means a lot to me."  He was shorter, fatter, and older than she'd expected.  A man with receding grey hair and a tired, lined face.  He was wearing a scruffy grey suit, a white shirt unbuttoned at the collar, and a slack blue tie.

"My wife thinks I'm crazy," Jankowski said, "coming here."

"You're in no immediate danger, Mr Jankowski," Rachel replied, "I've only recently satisfied my cravings"

"And what cravings might those be, Miss Penrose?" Jankowski asked.

"I'll explain in a little while," Rachel said.  "First, let's go somewhere more comfortable.  She began to walk away, the sharp clack, clack, clack of her heels echoing off the tunnel walls.  She continued, going from tunnel to tunnel, until she reached a short passage that ended in a blank wall.

"This is somewhere more comfortable?" Jankowski asked, nonplussed.

"It's not quite what it looks like," Rachel told him.  "This is a friend's place.  You have to walk through the end wall."  Without waiting for a reply she stepped through the wall into a cramped, dimly lit, barrel-vaulted room.  Turning, she watched as Jankowski approach the wall warily.  Shaking his head, he tapped the wall with the end of his flashlight.  "No, Mr Jankowski," Rachel shouted, "just shut your eyes and step forward.  She saw Jankowski take a deep breath and shut his eyes.  With faltering steps he walked towards the wall, passing through it with ease.  Rachel clapped her hands together joyfully.  "See, all it takes is a little belief," she told him.

Jankowski opened his eyes and blinked.  Bemused, he looked about.  "How's it possible?" he gasped.

"With a little magic," Rachel answered truthfully.

Jankowski twisted round.  The passage was clearly visible.  He swung back to face Rachel.  "This is amazing."

Rachel pointed to a faded, rust coloured armchair.  "Please take a seat, Mr Jankowski."  She watched as he lowered himself cautiously into the chair.  "I'm sorry I can't offer you anything," she apologised, sitting on the threadbare, blue settee opposite.

Jankowski raised his hand.  "It's perfectly all right, Miss Penrose," he said.

She smiled.  "Please call me Rachel.  'Miss Penrose' sounds so very formal."

"OK," Jankowski said, "if you’ll call me David."

Rachel stared at the floor.  "I suppose you want to hear my story?  It all started with Randy, my boyfriend.  He said it would be fun to explore these tunnels, with Milo and the others.  Only, when I got down here, I found I was supposed to search for the Abton Treasure.  I found the treasure, but woke the Worm guarding it.  To get out alive I had to drink the Worm's venom, and now I'm cursed."  Rachel peered at Jankowski and saw he was following her intently.  "Now, If I breath over someone, they die," she continued.  “And if I don't kill, a pain grows inside me until I do.  With Randy it was easy because he was a conniving little shit.  And Milo and Deborah, they were pretty selfish too, so I didn't feel too bad about killing them.  But Monty and Susan, they were nice.  I didn't want to hurt them, but I couldn't help myself.  It was after killing them that I realised how dangerous I was.  I'd rung in sick, and was in my flat, when somebody rang the doorbell.  I didn't dare answer the door because I knew I'd kill them also.  That's when I quit my job and came down here."

"And you've been down here ever since?"

"More or less," Rachel replied.  "I go out late at night to hunt.  Cats mainly.  Killing them helps with the pain, for a little while at least.  The only effective relief is to enter a trance.  At first I did so in the Chapel, but there was always the risk that someone might find me.  Fortunately, Max found me first and brought me here."

"And who is Max?" Jankowski asked.

"You'll meet him shortly, and his wife Phoebe.  They're very nice, but they're not at all what you'll be expecting."

"Right," Jankowski said.  "So why do you think I can help you?"

"You can't, not directly," Rachel replied, "but you can see my parents."  She pointed to a large brown envelope lying on the low wooden table between them.  "You can give them that and try and make them understand.  I've written everything down, but it's just words on paper.  I've rung them a few times, as you know.  Told them I've gone travelling, though clearly they don't believe me."  She shrugged.  "How do you tell your parents you've become a monster?"

"So what do you intend to do?"

Rachel smiled.  "I'm going to sealed myself in with the Worm.  Max will see it's done properly."

She saw Jankowski frown.  "That sounds a little extreme, Rachel," he said.  "Surely there's a better way?

"Do you believe me, David?" she asked.  "Do you believe what I've told you?"

Jankowski looked at her with clear blue eyes.  "I don't know," he said slowly.  "Maybe I do."

"Tell me what my options are?  I can kill myself, if that's possible.  Or I can keep killing until somebody locks me up and throws away the key.  Do you know how hard it is to keep killing cats, when what you really want to do is kill people?  I'm only safe in a trance.  So I might as well seal myself away rather than be locked up as a freak."

***

Jankowski, in truth, didn't know what to think.  Rachel's story was unbelievable, yet it sounded strangely plausible.  She sat, gaunt and pale, looking at him with watery green eyes.  It was impossible to ignore the fact that she smelt, and that her long, hazel hair was dirty and tangled.  Her clothes, tastefully chosen, were soiled and crumpled, with a hole where none should have been.  And the brown leather of her shoes was scuffed and muddy.  Maybe, as she said, she did spend her days chasing cats.

Rachel shifted on the settee.  "Ah," she said, "I think Max and Phoebe are coming."  

Jankowski looked over his shoulder as a brittle clattering sound became audible.  Eyes bulging, he half rose from his chair.  "Christ!" he swore as a tall, mottled skeleton entered the room.

"Nice to meet you too, Mr Jankowski," a masculine voice chuckled in his head.

Clack, clack, clack.  Another skeleton appeared; smaller, more delicate, and unblemished.  "Good evening, Mr Jankowski," a feminine voice greeted him.

He opened his mouth to reply but no words came out, just a gurgling sound.  He sank back into his chair and stared, not believing his eyes.  

"I guess we've made an impression then?" Max boomed.

"David," Rachel said, her mouth twisting into a smile, "meet Max and Phoebe."

Still speechless, Jankowski nodded, hoping fervently that he would soon wake up.

"No, you are not dreaming, Mr Detective," Max told him perceptively.  "I'm an old Roman soldier who had the misfortune to die in your chilly land, nearly two thousand years ago.  And sadly," he said, pointing a bony arm at Phoebe, "my charming wife passed away only recently."

Jankowski shook his head.  "This is impossible."

"They said the bumblebee couldn't fly, detective, yet fly it does."  The big skeleton shifted its position.  "Seeing is believing, Mr Jankowski."

"Oh dear," Rachel cut in, "David, I think it's time you left.  For your own safety, and my peace of mind, you understand."

"Huh?"  Jankowski shifted his gaze back to Rachel.  Her skin was glistening in the tepid light of the single bulb.  Ugly furrows creased her forehead.

Max laid a skeletal hand on Jankowski's shoulder.  "Best take the hint, Detective."

Jankowski glance up at Max, then at Rachel's clenched jaw and bunched fists.  Understanding, he nodded and rose quickly.  Picking up the envelope, he smiled and held out his hand.  The look in Rachel's eyes made him withdraw it sharply.  "I'll be going then," he said hastily.

"Phoebe will show you the way out," Max said.  "Rachel and I have business to attend to."

"OK," Jankowski said, taking a last look at Rachel.  "I'm sorry I couldn't have been of more help."

Rachel stood.  "If you can convince my parents to stop worrying about me, you’ll have done me a great service," she said, giving him a wan smile.  "Goodbye, and thank you."

"Goodbye," Jankowski said sadly.  He pulled the flashlight from his pocket and switched it on.  After giving Rachel a final smile, he turned and looked at Phoebe.  "Ready?"

Phoebe inclined her smooth skull.  "Yes," she said softly.  After a tap on Max's arm, she led Jankowski into the oppressive darkness of the tunnels.  He kept his beam on her receding form as the clacking of her heels ricochetted off the walls.

"This is a rum do," Jankowski muttered finally.

Phoebe glanced back at him.  "Yes, it's a very sad situation."

"There's something that's really starting to bug me," Jankowski continued.  "How the heck are you and Max able to talk?  I don't mean to be rude, but you're nothing but bone?"

A good question, Mr Jankowski," Phoebe replied.  "I put it down to telepathy."  She continued on in silence until she reached an opening.  Stopping, she pointed to the flight of brick steps leading upwards.  "I think this is your stop."

Jankowski shone his torch up the stairwell.  "Are you sure?" he asked doubtfully.

"Pretty sure, but I'll stay here until you're certain.  Just shout down if it's OK."

Jankowski nodded.  "Fair enough," he said, wondering how to say goodbye to a skeleton.

Phoebe must have sensed his discomfiture.  "I've been in your position, Mr Jankowski," she told him.  "There's no need for chit chat."

"OK then," he said, smiling.  With a final nod, he shone the torch up the steps and began climbing.  It did not take him long to reach the top, and an open door.  Stepping through, he swung his light about and recognised the cellar he'd entered hours earlier.  Returning to the top of the stairs he shouted down.  "Yes, you're right!"

"Told you.  Don't forget to visit.  Bye."

"Bye!"  His reply echoed down the stairs and was lost in the darkness.  It was time to go home.  Tomorrow he would go and see the Penrose's.

***

Rachel stared at the small hole, low down in the wall.  Max had removed the bare minimum of blocks to allow her access.  If she squeezed hard enough, it was just possible that she could wriggle her way through.

"Are you sure you want to do this?"  Max asked, laying a hand on her shoulder.

"Yes, I'm sure," she answered.

"Fine."  The skeleton gave her shoulder a friendly squeeze.

"I'm going to crawl in now," Rachel said.  Max nodded.  Trembling, she squatted down in front of the hole and pushed her arms through.  Something rustled on the other side.  Placing her head in the opening, she began to pull herself into the hidden cavity.  She felt a moment of panic as her clothing snagged on the stonework, she heard a ripping sound, and she was through.

"Welcome home," a reptilian voice hissed.

The cavity was small.  There was just enough room for her to sit upright, with her back to the wall and her legs tucked under her chin.  Most of the remaining space was taken up by a large, coiled snake.  It slid its smooth, cold body into Rachel's lap and began to tickled her chin with its moist, crimson tongue.  To her side rested a small chalice of bronze, its surface engraved with runic characters.  Rachel touched it and gasped.  Magical energy coursed through her like a jolt of electricity.  She had found the real Abton Treasure.

"Are you all right in there?"  Max sounded concerned.

"Yes," Rachel replied, "I'm OK."

"I'll start putting the wall back in place then?"

"Yes, do that.  And thank you Max.  You've been a good friend."

There was a scraping sound as Max set to work.  He trowelled mortar into place and put a stone block on it.  Working quickly, he plastered more mortar around the edges of the block until it was sealed in place.  Then he repeated the exercise until there was no opening left.  Rachel was immured.

"Dream, little one," the snake purred.

Rachel closed her eyes.  All around precious objects sparkled in the golden light.  Smiling, she lay her head against the chest of her handsome prince and began to sing.


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