CHAPTER 8: Trap-doors and Traitors
Whether it was a good sign or a bad omen, the rest of Aidan and Eastling’s journey through the theatre went unhindered. They reached the underground stables with their nerves in a bundle, but all was still. Sad horses—about ten of them—hung their noble heads over the stall doors and looked balefully up at the visitors through their long lashes. There was no hay, no bags of feed, not even a bucket of water. Aidan was almost incensed at the neglect these poor animals were suffering when he remembered that they, too, were dead. Indeed, that ought to have been obvious from the way the stables smelled; they were clean—not one whiff of a living beast. How in the world he could smell anything at all as a skeleton was a question on which Aidan decided he would rather not strain himself.
They passed through the stables, following the gradual curve of the darkest hallway he had ever seen. It snaked always to the right and was so poorly lit that he and Eastling bumped into walls several times in their effort to reach the door they sought—the only door in the entire hallway. It was made of metal and had a keypad above the handle.
“You do know the code, right?” Aidan asked. He stood back as the pianist approached.
“The artist knew it,” Eastling explained. “How he learned it, we may never know, but he passed it on to us before he was taken. There was a note under my door one night, and there it was.”
A few quick taps from his deft fingers and there was an audible ‘click.’ Eastling took hold of the handle and turned it down, pulling firmly. The door opened and the distinct smell of dirt, dust, mold, and other unmentionable things which were possibly dead rats rushed out to greet them. Inside, everything was cast in a soft red glow beneath filtered lights.
Aidan followed him over the threshold. They were now directly beneath the stage. It was a wide, open space covered in a thin layer of dust which was only disturbed by old footprints. He cast an eye over it and then gave his attention to the twisting pipes and rails that lined the ceiling and walls on either side. It looked like hell’s boiler room, and yet somehow it was oddly familiar.
“Here,” Eastling called, a little ways ahead. Aidan tore his gaze from a couple of pipes which were humming steadily and jogged the distance.
“What is it?”
“You’re standing on it.”
There was a trapdoor at the tips of his skeleton toes. It was narrow and about six feet long. Actually, Aidan decided, it was more like the entrance of a bomb shelter.
“Give me a hand.” Eastling bent and lifted the heavy metal slab just enough so that Aidan could fit his fingers underneath. Then they began to push. They struggled with it for half a minute and then….
“Oh,” Eastling breathed.
Red light bled into the deep pit before them, illuminating a freshly-turned layer of dirt and loose cement. A shovel lay hastily discarded on top, and for a moment Aidan didn’t see what was so impressive. But then, mixed in among the dregs of digging, like marshmallows in a child’s cereal, little pinpricks of white caught his eye. A jagged edge here, a smooth pale curve there—bones.
“I don’t understand,” said Aidan, feeling very self-conscious in the presence of his calcium cousins. “Are these…us?”
“Maybe,” Eastling said after a moment. “Maybe not. But they’re certainly what enables The Masque to be a place of Both.”
Brief memories of the journey through Out-shift rushed into Aidan’s mind. He saw again the jig-saw silhouette of a train station rising out of a bleak landscape, punched out from the rest of the world with cookie-cutter exactness. He heard Peter explaining about Lyle’s Way, the railroad that the station served. He remembered the random houses that had drifted past the train windows. Victorian, Colonial, modern…they had somehow existed in both places.
“So any place where the dead are buried can be Both?” he ventured.
The pianist nodded. “Any place. Graveyards, buildings, fields, the ocean….” He drew back from the pit and took out an old yellowed handkerchief, wiping his forehead out of what Aidan assumed must have been habit; it wasn’t as if the dead could sweat. “There’s just one problem,” he sighed. “This won’t convince anybody that we’ve been collected. It’s obvious that Sir Hugo would have needed dead bodies to make The Masque work. In fact, they could have been here long before he took over. He didn’t build this place, after all. This proves nothing.”
Not for the last time, Aidan found himself regretting his fateful climb out of that lonely, muddy grave. If only he had stayed where fate had put him. If only he had been an English teacher or an insurance salesman in life—something safe, anything but an artist. Anything that wouldn’t have tempted Sir Hugo to seek him out in the first place.
The pipes continued to hum overhead. Eastling laid a hand on Aidan’s shoulder. The old man looked close to tears. “I’m sorry,” he said.
“Don’t be,” Aidan soothed. “We’ll find something else. There must be something.”
“What sort of something?” said a voice that was not the pianist’s.
They both froze. Aidan’s non-existent heart leapt into his throat. “Alexandre,” he managed, turning to face the dancer. His blue-tinged face loomed out of the darkened doorway, smiling its practiced smile.
“That’s right, Mr. Lawrence.”
Aidan didn’t like this. The dancer was his friend, but something about his expression was terribly off. “What are you doing down here?” he asked.
“Looking for you,” Alexandre replied. “You have the seam-makers in an uproar. You’re lucky I volunteered to look for you, before Sir Hugo or Peter heard.” That smile must have been pinned to his face. It never faltered as he smoothed a stray lock of damp greenish-blonde hair from his eyes and said,
“I did not think you would befriend the conspiracy theorists, Mr. Lawrence. Ah, but it must have been Eve, wasn’t it. I warned you, didn’t I? The dark lady has led you astray.”
“She wasn’t wrong,” Aidan said. “We just need to prove it. You could help us,” he added hopefully.
Alexandre chuckled. “Help you with what, Mr. Lawrence? You haven’t anything to go on.”
“Yes we have,” said Eastling.
Aidan resisted the urge to look at him; better to let Alexandre think that was true. The pianist took him by the arm and led him to the open trapdoor. He looked down onto the scattered bones of dozens of men and women without a single change of expression. Always that practiced, perfect smile…it looked fiendish in the red light. “This means nothing,” he said.
“It’s a start,” Eastling insisted. “Please, Alexandre, we need you on board with this. If there’s even the slightest chance we can prove that Sir Hugo has us murdered and brought here…don’t you want to help?”
It happened before they could think. One moment the dancer was standing harmlessly beside Eastling, gazing into the pit, and the next one of his lean-muscled arms was shoving the pianist forward. He fell with a cry and landed on someone’s disembodied knee, crushing it with a sickening crunch.
Aidan had only a brief second in which to stare at Alexandre in shock before the dancer scooped up the shovel resting nearby and lifted it above his head, ready to strike. His eyes were piercing and mad.
“No,” he hissed, “I don’t wish to help you. You are lying. Everything is fine.”
“Alexandre,” Eastling pleaded, trying to get to his feet. The bones kept slipping out from under him. “Please, you know it isn’t. You know–”
The shovel met his skull. Aidan watched in horror as Eastling’s face went blank with the impact. Alexandre struck him again, driving the edge of the tool into his head. Blood streamed down the pianist’s face. He crumpled like a doll, falling back onto a bed of death.
“It is a paradise,” the dancer shouted, spit flecking Eastling’s immobile body. “You should have stayed in it!” He turned on Aidan, his grin morphing into a wolf’s leer. With his perpetually damp hair and blue-tinged skin he looked like some waterlogged zombie, dredged up from the depths of a hellish lake on a mission of revenge.
Aidan ran. He wasn’t proud of it, but what else was he supposed to do? He was a clumsy skeleton with nothing between him and a trip back to the road. He dashed out of the door and straight into the chest of someone tall, thin, and covered in blue.
“Peter!” he gasped, pushing himself back from the fool, who looked down his painted nose with an annoyed expression. “Help!”
Peter didn’t need to ask what was wrong, for at that moment Alexandre appeared on his heels, brandishing the blood-stained shovel. “Mr. Grey,” he said from between clenched teeth. “This artist…he is just like the one before! They have tried to ruin everything Sir Hugo has done!”
“Have they now?” said Peter. He side-stepped Aidan and held out a hand for the shovel. “Give it to me, Alex.”
“You are going to punish him, aren’t you, Mr. Grey?”
“Oh, absolutely. Give me the shovel.”
The dancer handed it over. “Who was with him?” asked Peter.
“Liam Eastling. I dealt with him; he is likely back on the road by now, Mr. Grey.”
Peter turned the shovel over in his hands, observing the blood. “Ah. Yes, well done. No need to waste any more of your valuable time on these misanthropes. I’ll take care of Bare Bones here. Run along back to arabesqueing and practicing your chaîné turns, or whatever it is you need to be doing.”
“But Mr. Grey,” the dancer protested, glancing between him and Aidan in confusion. “He-”
“Not another word!” Peter smiled. “You’re here to perform and to perform you need to practice and to practice you don’t need to be chasing skeletons all over the theatre! Go on, now.” He gave the dancer a hearty slap on the back and watched as he made his way reluctantly back up the corridor. When he was satisfied Alexandre was gone, he turned to Aidan.
“I want to see what you’ve found.”
“Wait a minute,” said Aidan, feeling very behind on the situation. “Why are you helping me?”
“Because,” said Peter. “Show me.”
“It wasn’t much.”
“Show me any way.”
Aidan led the way back into hell’s boiler room, wondering if this was some complicated trap. Perhaps Peter wanted to see what they had found so that he could make sure no one else ever did. Perhaps he was going to shove Aidan into the pit and leave him there forever, or break his spine in half and send him whirling back to the road after Eastling.
His imagination gave him a variety of similarly grim scenarios, but when at last they stood gazing down at the bones, Peter simply sighed. “You’re right. That isn’t much.” He took the shovel and began poking through the sea of bones. “This doesn’t prove anything at all. Hard to believe Tristan wasted all of that time on this….” He looked at Aidan for a moment and seemed conflicted about something, but then the expression passed and he handed him the shovel. “Dig around a bit,” he said. “See if there’s something he missed. I’m going to go lock Alex up.”
“I still don’t understand why you’re helping us,” said Aidan.
The fool smiled wryly. “Us, Bare Bones? It’s just you now.”
That thought rendered Aidan silent. No more Eve, no more Eastling…nobody else in the entire theatre to rely on except, apparently, Peter Grey. Eastling had claimed that there were others who were ready to rebel, given the right nudge, but Aidan had no idea who they were or what to tell them. Of course, he had also been under the impression that Peter had banished the artist, Tristan, for what he had been doing, but evidently that was in some way incorrect.
He was just bringing his thoughts around to the poet and the playwright and beginning to think of tracking them down as a likely source of help when something in the bones caught his eye. It was a corner of fabric, faded blue. He got to his knees and leaned forward to grab on to it. He pulled, but it didn’t come free right away. For a moment he thought it was merely caught on a bone, but then he realized that it was holding something. He wrapped both hands around it and pulled…and came away with the decrepit remains of a blue coat and a crumbling skeleton.
It was a good five minutes before Peter returned. Aidan had dropped the skeleton back into the pit and was standing over it, rooted to the spot. At first, the fool didn’t notice what had frozen him. He clapped a hand on Aidan’s shoulder and leaned forward. “Find anything?”
“Um,” said Aidan. He pointed down at the sad, lolling skeleton in the blue coat. “Isn’t that yours?”
The fool’s painted eyes grew wide. Something—some phantom piece of string that had been stretched taut all these years—snapped. Like a little twig it broke in two.
A slow smile broke across his face, stretching the painted corners of his mouth into an exaggerated black grin. Crushed bits of bone swam in his vision, staining his mind with their jagged patterns. Into the cacophony of terror, he managed a nod. “Well done. We’ve got all we need.”
(Wow, that was a long post! Tune in Thursday for more!)