Finally he extended the flashlight like a blind man’s cane, turning slowly full circle so he could at least find one side of the sluice.
The water was only six or seven feet across at its widest. Still here he was, unable to reach either side, and lost in the dark. There was no possible way that could be so, and yet as far as he could reach there was only stinking, cold, liquid. He began to imagine again that the fluid was something other than just foul, stagnant water, some circulatory solution for that immense beast that had swallowed him up into its vast innards.
Another clang, closer, reminded him that he was in fact within the bowels of an ancient sewer, and that at any moment he might become another bit of dead flotsam.
What the hell were they doing, beating the bushes for him like African tribesmen running game? He pictured the pair edging along the tunnel, tapping the walls with Softie’s flashlight grinning wickedly at each other in the darkness. Maybe the fuckers even had night vision goggles so they hardly needed the flashlight, and here he was caught in the final scene from Silence of the Lambs without a gun.
He turned full circle again, his only reference now the occasional clang drawing closer. Placing his back to the sound he took a stride toward what had to be the far side of the tunnel. The sole of his loafer slipped on the greasy bottom pulling his groin muscles painfully, and he felt himself sliding down to one knee, the cold, slimey water rushing up his sides, then along his throat. He sucked in a deep breath as the greasy, noxious fluid cascaded over his face. He struggled to hold the flashlight above the surface, but it felt almost as though an unseen hand forced it under.
Finally he broke the surface again, shaking the foul liquid out of his hair, fighting to breathe silently and only succeeding in drawing filthy water down into his throat. He needed desperately to spit, but he knew even that sound might give him away. He reached out again–without much hope–for the side of the sluice and thankfully found it at last. Dragging himself up onto the walk he slid along the tunnel wall until his fingers touched the rusted rungs of the ladder. At least he had come out on the right side of the sluice. He couldn’t imagine forcing himself to climb back into that slime to attempt another such crossing. It took him a moment to catch his breath, but the continuing taps in the distance urged him on. Loosening his belt to its last notch he shoved the flashlight into it and began to climb.
In some spots the rungs had nearly rusted through, and he placed his weight upon them carefully, gripping two above him at one time to catch himself in case one underfoot gave way. As with the weird crossing of the sluice, the climb seemed eternal. He hadn’t thought to count the rungs, but his mind had to be playing tricks on him, because it seemed as though he must be fifty feet up the shaft when it had looked no higher than twenty. When his head touched the manhole cover and he stopped, breathing hard, he heard a splash below him, and he froze.
His mind continued playing nasty tricks. He imagined Softie and Leadie–wearing the night-vision goggles his fevered imagination had granted them–standing just beneath him, smirking, aiming their guns at him. Or, maybe he was just imagining all of it, the clangs, the light…maybe even the splash? He wondered for a moment if there were noxious gases in the tunnels that might be affecting his senses. Maybe that was how he’d lost his way to begin with, how he had become so disoriented in the trough. Of course there was also the disconcerting possibility that the map-maker was completely insane to begin with and there had never been more than one way out of this labyrinth.
Deciding that none of those prospects bore considering at the moment, his fingers found the outline of a corroded iron lid, but shove as he might he couldn’t lift it. Instead he shifted his weight on the rungs and felt around until he found a cross shaft that turned out to be barely large enough to drag himself into. The hole widened a few feet in, and he turned and crawled back to the opening. He lay there in the pitch blackness for long minutes until the dripping noises were suddenly punctuated by a human voice.