“Hey,” the security guard, who really didn’t look like he was having a good day, strode up to me along the puddly concrete floor. I hurriedly closed the case and stood up. “You can’t be down here. Like I just got through telling that old lady ‑ ”
When in doubt, take the offensive wasn’t exactly a winning motto, but I figured it was the best approach in this case. The security guard really did look as though he’d take any excuse not to be down here. “Hey,” I said, “that ‘old lady’ happened to be my mother, Rose. I’m down here looking for her. She had an attack of dementia and wandered off while we were, um, shopping?”
“Oh,” the security guard looked immediately contrite, and simultaneously as though a guilt trip was just the perfect bookend to a perfect day. “Well, I sent her back up through the Cliff Avenue underpass, it’s the only open way, I have no idea how you got this far down. I’ll show you the way,” he looked at the empty cardboard box at my feet. “Is that yours?”
“Nope,” I said, and nudged it with my foot. “It’s got L&E written on it, maybe it’s theirs.”
The security guard looked pained again. “Ah man,” he said. “Even now, we’re still finding stuff.”
“Um,” I nodded, “okay. Well, it is a lost and found box … ”
“The box,” I said helpfully. “It also has LOST & FOUND on it.”
“Oh,” he said, evidently nonplussed, and then squinted at the little case under my arm. “What’s that?” he asked.
“Toy for my little brother,” I said. “Um, diamond thief something-or-other, I don’t know, toys and TV show tie-ins these days or somesuch … was it this way?”
“Huh? Oh. Oh, yeah,” he pointed me along the passageway, and we both started out. “The bank levees both collapsed yesterday, and the library’s gone. This tunnel’s going to be sealed soon, you’re both lucky we’re still even patrolling.”
“Yesterday?” I said, still distracted by what I’d seen in the case. “What happened yesterday?”
“Well, you know, after the sewer backwash.”
“Is that what they’re saying it is?”
The security guard snorted. “Yeah, it’s an understatement … but a forty-five-storey building collapsing into a swamp and pushing a couple hundred thousand tons of sludge and body-parts back up through everyone’s toilets … what do you want to call it?”
“Yeah,” I said, frowning. I wanted to ask which building had collapsed, but I had a feeling I already knew. I also had a feeling I hadn’t arrived back at the time from which I had come, because I was pretty certain no buildings had collapsed yesterday. For that matter, the curse of the Barnsley Yard Cookhouse Trumpet hadn’t kicked off yesterday, either. There was something very, very not-right about the whole thing.
We made our way up and along, around and up again, the dripping and the puddles slowly receding until we were in an actual well-lit and carpeted corridor, even though the lights were raw fluorescents and carpet was that cheap rubbery felt underlay stuff.
“Your mum headed back towards the department store from here,” the security guard said, pointing me in the direction of some stairs. “Up there, then a door on the left takes you to the main Milton Avenue sealed walkway, then just follow it along, there are a few openings on every block. Maybe she went back to her shopping.”
“Probably,” I said faintly.
“Left it a bit late, haven’t you?”
“Always do,” I admitted.
“Still, could be worse, huh?” he said in forced good humour. “Could be working, like I am.”
“I hope your mum’s okay.”
I felt bad for the hasty lie I’d made up. “It’s not really dementia-dementia,” I said, “she just … you know, vagues out and completely forgets she’s not doing her shopping in the Seventies or whatever, but not in an actually serious medical way. It’s just … especially with all these, you know, collapsed buildings and sealed walkways and stuff. I didn’t mean to put all that on you.”
“It’s fine,” he said, “just … give me a break, and try to keep her from wandering down here again. The whole place could start filling up with ooze at any moment.”
Frowning, not entirely sure I wanted to see what sort of swampocalyptic future I had stumbled into, I climbed the stairs and took the door on the left. The fresh stink, as I opened it and stepped out onto what should have been a street pavement on the side of Milton Avenue, really made me wonder about just how ‘sealed’ the walkway was. It was a sort of an orange tube like a giant horizontal garbage disposal chute that you see on the walls of construction sites, and as I walked along it I could feel the ground under its floor shifting and squishing.
Lake Philip had risen, severely. If the security guard’s more-or-less acceptance of my presence in the maintenance tunnel – although he’d been a bit less chill about it than the Colonel had been – wasn’t enough to convince me I’d time travelled again, the abrupt shift in the city’s circumstances definitely did the trick.
The first opening I came to was a Glamour-Bomb Accessories shop-front. PLEASE WIPE FEET, a hand-written sign had been stuck in the window … only partially blocking the colourful decorations of tinsel, baubles, and a nightmarishly made-over and blingified model of a rangifer solis invicti. That’s Santa’s reindeer, to the layman.
“Christmas,” I growled, staring at the window display. “It had to be Christmas.”