Chapter Twenty One - Elkwood
Charlotte’s car pulls up at a grim concrete wall that stretches out either side for almost as far as the eye can see. Behind them the cheerful green tapestry of Harlington’s countryside clusters at their back, ready to defend against the evils within this alien enclosure.
“How big is this place?” Gabe muses, his eyes roaming over the endless grey expanse. There’s no one at the gate, which is hard to distinguish from the wall itself. Bird is frantically tapping at his laptop. He makes an excited chirp. The wall shifts and an opening appears.
“Bird, you’re a genius!” Shouts Gonzo. “Oops, sorry Charlotte.”
Gabe drives through slowly. They all gaze around them in awe. Even Charlotte is sitting up, her heart pumping wildly at the sight of this strange red landscape devoid of life. Ahead the ugly edifice squats in the centre surrounded by its ghastly moat.
“Brutalism. Cool,” says Gonzo.
“There’s no bridge,” says Gabe. He turns his head. “Bird?”
Bird is tapping like a crazed woodpecker. “I’m trying!” He whines. Then a long strip opening appears on the building at ground level. A concrete slab slides out to traverse the moat. It connects at their end as a small puff of red dust rises. Gabe and Charlotte exchange glances.
“Surely it can’t be that easy,” he murmurs.
“The red carpet,” she replies, shrugging. “We’re expected.” The throbbing in her head has eased. There’s room for logical thought now.
He looks at her. “Did you..?”
She smirks. “Would it matter if I did?”
“Charlie, you can’t keep depleting yourself!”
“No,” says Bird firmly in his dainty voice. “It was me.” In the mirror Charlotte can see the look of triumph on his face. How can these super smart guys be so gullible? Of course they let us in. Her beautiful sports car glides over the bridge. On either side the water appears coated with a layer of silver. As she watches, a form floats up and rolls over, like someone under a sheet.
“Ew. What the hell was that?” She grimaces, pointing. They all saw it. Gabe’s face is white, his lips parted.
“Let’s hope it’s friendly,” suggests Gonzo. Charlotte looks up at the hideous structure, bulging like a badly stuffed toad.
“You really think anything here is friendly?”
“We don’t have a choice,” says Gabe, accelerating towards an opening which has appeared in its otherwise impenetrable facade. Up close Elkwood looms over them with superiority, sure of itself, its hulking form impenetrable. Unless you’re invited. Gabe pulls up just short of the strange entrance on a section barely a car’s length. The engine grumbles impatiently sending gentle vibrations through the car.
“What are you waiting for?” Says Charlotte. “We have to go in.”
“I know, but…” He turns to her, an awkward smile on his face. “Maybe we should leave you outside in the car. You’ll be safer here.”
Charlotte stares at him, disbelieving.
“Are you kidding?” She finally explodes. “He’s my father, damn it! Now put your bloody foot down and get us in there!”
He sighs. “Worth a try.” The car glides in as, behind them, the hole in the wall fuses with the structure, plunging them into darkness. Gabe switches on the headlights. Ahead is another concrete wall about five feet away.
“What is this place?” Charlotte feels tingles of fear run along her arms. “A dead end?” They all get out to investigate. But the car is sinking, perched in the middle of a circular platform that has begun to descend to lower levels in the monolith. They all hurriedly get back in and close the doors.
“A service elevator. This is good,” says Gabe, checking his watch.
“They know we’re here,” says Bird gloomily.
“Of course they do!” snaps Charlotte. “They let you hack in because they wanted us to.” She can see Bird’s crestfallen face and darting eyes in the mirror. “I’m sorry,” she offers. He shrugs his thin shoulders. Charlotte strains to see anything in their cylindrical prison cell. “What do you think we’ll see down here?”
From the back seat comes the sound of two sets of fingers tapping.
“Oh,” says Gonzo quietly.
“What?” Gabe turns his head.
“What?” They all chorus.
“Well, it looks like this is the, er, garbage recycling area.”
“Is that bad?” Asks Charlotte.
“Depends on how they recycle cars.”
The lift stops with a clunk. Ahead, a door that a second ago was part of the blank wall, glides up. Gabe grips the wheel, takes a deep breath and drives through. They emerge into a dark, low ceilinged room. There are several vehicles parked in bays nearby. Gabe selects an empty space and turns off the ignition. The grumbling voice of their portable sanctuary falls silent. Bird is still pecking at his screen.
“Doesn’t look like a recycling area,” says Gonzo doubtfully, clicking open his door and getting out. Gabe and Charlotte follow. It’s grim and lifeless, just like the outside. Gonzo points to a service door. Gabe nods.
“Come on, Bird,” he says, “Unless you plan to stay in there.”
A car door opens and Bird’s thin hand is thrust out. In his palm is an ear piece and three tiny buttons.
“Have you got a decent signal?” Gonzo stoops to look at Bird, hidden in the shadows of the back seat.
“Yes. Go. I’ll track you and keep you informed.” His high voice sounds ridiculous giving orders, but they obey. After putting the ear piece in his left ear Gabe pulls off the sticky backing of a button. Staring deep into her eyes, he gently lifts the hem of Charlotte’s top then presses the button firmly to the fabric. They exchange smirks as his warm hand brushes against her skin, sending shivers everywhere. Gonzo attaches his button, oblivious. Gabe smiles lazily as Charlotte puts her hand inside his shirt and presses the button against it. Splaying her hand over his chest, she watches his face relax into a sly smile. Ignoring the pain and nausea, she takes his hand in hers. Suddenly it doesn’t seem to matter that they’re in some freakish dungeon or that her father is a prisoner somewhere inside it. She has powers. And for once in her life she is going to do exactly as she likes without worrying about how she looks or what people will think. “Look out Anna Povic,” she says darkly. “I’m coming.”
Just as Gonzo reaches out a hand to the exit door, it opens. A man dressed entirely in dark green stands there, one hand on the gun at his hip, the other holding a small device. He’s about twenty, of slender build, with blonde hair and mean, dark eyes under thin, arched brows. He looks familiar. Charlotte can’t quite place him. Without a word, he beckons them follow. The corridor is a shiny tunnel of metal walls with no air and an eerie greenish light that hurts Charlotte’s eyes. The ceiling is low and the floor is thick, opaque glass. It is eerily quiet, just the sound of their footsteps and breathing. The man walks swiftly ahead. Charlotte struggles to keep up, her hand tightly grasped in Gabe’s. They come to a dead end. They’ve passed no doors. They’re trapped. The man touches his ear, mumbles something and the wall slides to one side. They enter a small, metal room. With a shooshing sound, the door slides shut. The smell of sweat is particularly strong standing next to Gonzo in this tight space, whose face is slightly grey with a sheen of moisture. He and Gabe converse with looks and nods Charlotte cannot interpret. She finds herself staring at the guard, who in turn stares at the wall. Is it a lift? Suddenly he touches his ear again and turns his head, silently surveying her as one would an object of curiosity. There is no life in his sharp, dark eyes. It’s like there’s no one inside there…
The wall slides open and she gasps at the huge grey chamber before them. Concrete pillars rise at odd angles to the vaulted ceiling. There is no furniture, no windows. A thin stream of natural light trickles down among the obstructions in the ceiling and the strangely positioned pillars, casting dense angled shadows on every surface. The guard stalks silently across the bare, grey floor, the others in tow, glancing all around them, trying to make sense of this interior. Charlotte feels eyes upon her and turns her head nervously. In dark niches giant square faces of stone peer out, their features crude, their heads encased in helmets, their bodies emerging from grey thrones carved from the walls and pillars. Simple geometric designs have been carved into their legs and arms, like decorative armour. It’s as if a war is going on, unseen, all around them and these defenders lurk in dark recesses, ready to strike. Such an odd thing in this minimalist, modern edifice. Charlotte shivers. There’s a lot the internet didn’t tell them about Elkwood. She pulls Gabe towards her and whispers in his ear.
“What the hell is this place?”
He shakes his head, his face grim, his eyes darting round furtively and squeezes her hand tighter. At the far end under a slanting pillar, the guard pauses and touches his ear again. A ten foot section of the concrete wall slides away and they enter into another chamber. To their left, sunlight streams through a skylight the width of the room, meeting the steeply sloping wall. There is no artificial light at all. In the centre of the chamber is a huge black hole, from which small electronic sounds are heard. Perched on the edge of this hole is a long wooden desk. As the group approaches, a figure rises from behind it. A woman dressed in familiar secretarial garb.
Charlotte lurches towards her. ”Release my father, you bitch!”
“Charlie, no!” Gabe grabs her arms. The guard turns and points his device directly at her, his eyebrow raised in a quizzical expression, daring her to take one step closer. Gonzo steps forward.
“Charlotte,” he says in a steady voice. “This isn’t the moment to piss them off.”
“But she’s got him here!” Charlotte growls.
“I’m with you Charlotte, all the way, you know that. But we need more information,” says Gonzo.
Anna Povic’s high heels echo as she walks towards them with lazy confidence. Her hair is pinned tightly behind her head in a severe bun. Her face is made up, but it does nothing to soften her features. She’d be attractive if she ditched that look, Charlotte muses, realising with surprise that she is not the least bit frightened of the woman now. Until she notices that Anna Povic must have had at least a broken leg last time she saw her. There is obviously nothing wrong with her leg now. Charlotte narrows her eyes. Could it be?
There’s an urgent beeping sound in the area below. Anna Povic’s expression is smugly catlike as she walks to the un-railed edge. “Come,” she says, beckoning. As if they are in a trance, they shuffle to within a foot of the opening. Dizziness swamps Charlotte and she clutches Gabe’s arm. He is standing a sensible distance from the edge, watching Anna Povic’s every movement. But curiosity gets the better of him and he leans over to look.
“Charlie, you’d better look at this,” he says in a low, urgent voice.