The gate to Bunker Hollow was closed and locked when he pulled in. No evidence of other searchers. He parked by the gate, grabbed his Maglight, and walked around. The road was an overgrown tunnel of trees and brush surrounding old gravel ground into the red clay. The moon was new and shed no light. It was utterly black without the flashlight. The only natural light came from flickers of stars through the leaves and needles as they danced restlessly in the light spring breeze. A chill ran down his spine.
The path was long, straight, and showed signs of heavy foot and vehicle traffic in recent days. He shone the flashlight directly ahead and it disappeared into the waning dark. The only sound was his breathing, loud in the still night, and scratching of leaves in the wind.
“Where are…” He stopped, the sound of his own voice explosive in the still silence. The sound was a sacrilege in a monastery. The near spiritual aspect didn’t ease his concerns, however. Why were there no sounds of insects or animals? No birds, no bugs, no crickets. Just the wind and his breathing. Breathing that filled the ears like a roar. Why was he breathing so hard?
At least he had the flashlight in his left hand. His right rested on the .40 holstered on his hip. It wasn’t as comforting as his service weapon was. Of course, he always had light when he had his service weapon. San Francisco did not have this kind of light devouring darkness.
Well, it did on blackouts. But those were so rare he could count them on one hand. And then he had a partner and a car.
The light caught something grey in the distance. He froze. Brought the light up and squinted. Grey, solid, with two dark eyes flanking a gaping black mouth. The blood rushed in his veins. His breathing became a cacophony.
The face didn’t move. It stared at him. He stared back. Something inside him screamed, “Run!” Something else demanded, “Don’t run, you fucking coward.”
He didn’t run. Malcolm Thomas Evers was not the kind of person who ran from things. He faced them.
His gun was out. When did that happen? It was out and aimed at the face. He exhaled and walked forward two steps. The face remained fixed.
It wasn’t a face. It couldn’t be. Nothing looked like that: big and grey and elongated with huge black eyes.
“Fucking moron. It’s the goddamned bunker.”
The elongated shape was the concrete bunker. The grey was its color. The gaping maw was the door. The eyes some graffiti sprayed on by kids to make it look like a face.
His heart was still pounding. He approached the bunker and examined it with the light. It was a large concrete block with a single hole in the front. No signage or other indications it was constructed by the government or military. He was surprised at the lack of graffiti considering the area was a popular hangout for kids. The large oval eyes were the most prominent examples of graffiti. The concrete was chipped and cracked in several places from time, bullets, and other impacts. The northwestern corner had a large chunk missing – Mal guessed someone had crashed a car or truck into it. Rusted rebar jutted out like shattered bones in an open wound.
Mal holstered the gun and sat down on a chunk of concrete to catch his breath. He played the cone of light around the clearing that made up the hollow. The old gravel road was crisscrossed by many sets of tire tracks and footprints from dozens of searchers trampled over each other. There were no clues to be found in the hollow, that was certain.
He turned his attention to the bunker itself. The door was the size of a standard house door, but made of a rusted metal. The original latch was long gone and replaced by a simple chain through a hole and wrapped around the frame. Mal examined the chain and found the padlock was not latching the chain together. The searchers must have taken it off and forgot to put it back.
The door screamed in protest when he pulled it open. Smells of mildew and rotten plant matter assaulted him. The sound of a drop of water falling into a stagnant pool echoed. The light revealed damaged concrete steps, crowded with garbage, beer bottles, and other detritus. A few steps down, no more than ten feet, the stairs were swallowed by black water. The water itself was choked with more garbage. He tiptoed his way down the steps to the waterline. It looked like there was a floor not far below the murky darkness. The ceiling leveled out and led down a long passageway.
The light revealed little of the passage’s contents, meaning, or final destination. The light disappeared, swallowed by the dark and damp. He frowned. Aiming the light down at the water did little to reveal its depth. A rainbow oil slick reflected from the opaque surface. He spun the light around and lowered the long handle into the water. It struck something solid a few inches in. There was either another step, or a floor.
Mal sat down on the cluttered stairs and stared down the grey hall. Black carpets of mildew grew up the walls from the waterline.
“Well, what exactly did you think you were going to do tonight?” He asked, the question echoing back to him.
The answer was he didn’t know. A single man, in woods so dark they sucked the light, could not hope to be any more successful in his search than a large group of people in daylight.
He rubbed his eyes and sighed. The sound flowed down the passageway and came back distorted and broken. “Please…” It almost sounded like someone whispering “please.” He paused and held his breath. Was it the echo, or was it really someone down in the deep dark? The voice could have been female.
“Your mind is playing tricks on you. First the face, now this.”
He stood up.
His head snapped up. That wasn’t an echo. It was someone screaming – just loud enough for him to catch it.
“Where are you?” He yelled back. He waited as the echoes faded. Nothing.
The water was cold and sucked at his ankles. An image of something unseen and slimy just below the surface, circling his feet, came unbidden. He shuddered and slogged forward. The tiniest motion sent thick, oily ripples rolling down the hall and sloshing against the walls. The sound echoed and bounced and echoed again.
“Hello?” He called out again.
The word bounced back hollow.
The light caught the end of the hall. He approached with measured steps and controlled, if ragged, breaths. The intersection branched to both his left and right. He wavered. He remembered something Rodriguez, one of his partners, told him. Rodriguez was raised in the southwest on a ranch and came to the force after serving in the Army Rangers.
“In the woods,” he told Mal one day. “A right-handed person will tend to wander to the right. A left-handed to the left.”
“It works the same way in the city. If you are chasing someone, and they are right-handed, they will be more likely to turn right at a corner than left.”
“And how would I know if he was a righty or lefty?”
“Most people are right-handed.”
Mal turned right. The barren hall looked no different from the previous one. Mildew rose from fetid water and darkness sucked at the light. He slowed his steps, not lifting his feet out of the water but sliding them forward. The fear of something under the brackish quagmire, lurking just below the reflective surface, shivered along his spine. He did not want to step on a loose stone, a sunken bottle, or even a gaping hole. By sliding his feet along the slick floor he hoped to mediate the risk.
His passage slowed. The sound of his movement muffled. The bunker swallowed all. Light, sound, and reason.
Mal spun to pinpoint the sound. His actions defeated him, however, as the sudden splashing of water reverberated throughout the dismal enclosure. The echoes faded and were replaced by heavy breathing. His own breathing.
“Calm down,” he whispered. “Calm.”
The gun was again in his hand and pointing in the direction he came. He whirled. Nothing in either direction. Nothing but grey walls, black water, and creeping mildew. He gasped and sighed, calming his breath and straining his ears. Nothing. No sounds, save his own.
The hall continued. Mal followed it slowly until it too branched in two directions. Again he chose to go to the right. Again he faced another featureless hall.
“What was the point of this bunker? No doors, no rooms, no signs – just halls. This doesn’t make any sense.”
Even his whispers carried and echoed in the still silence.
He slid his feet down the hall. Time passed. The walls seemed closer than before. He stopped and looked back. He couldn’t see the previous intersection. He couldn’t see where, or if, this hall ended.
His feet were becoming numb in the cold water. The thick much had crept up his pants legs and soaked through to his knees.
“I should turn around,” he mumbled. “I can’t do any good down here.”
But what of the voice calling for help? Was it just his imagination? Was she down here – or someone else, for that matter?
“There is no evidence anyone has been through here in the last few hours except for you.”
He shone the light at his feet as if to prove this to himself. The only thing visible were the ripples. Except he was standing still. And these ripples were coming from somewhere ahead.
The voice seemed closer than before and filled with panic. Mal broke into a fast walk, no longer concerned for the safety of his feet or what may lurk just beneath the fetid water. The barrel of his gun followed the cone of light as he swung his flashlight back and forth, sweeping the hall. He could see the end – and something shadowy and dark, crouching as if huddled over something.
“Don’t move! I have a gun!”
The shadowy figure twitched, as if turning. It was too far away for him to see it clearly. But it look as though the figure of a man was kneeling in the muck.
“Please don’t do this!” The voice cried out, louder, and full of fear.
The shadowy figure turned away from him. He could see splashes. Something pale rose out of the water, only to be pushed back in by the figure. A scream suddenly muffled by water escaped.
Mal’s fast walk became a run. He was closer to the black figure yet it refused to acknowledge him again.
“Police,” he screamed.
No response. No acknowledgment.
The pale shape rose again. This time more distinct – a girl, struggling. It went back under.
Mal fired. Three times he pulled the trigger, without slowing his gait. The black shape vanished under the water. Mal rushed to where it had been.
His feet found no purchase. A slip, a sudden wrenching turn in his stomach, and black cold. His knees hit something solid as he went under. His ankle screamed in agony. The light was a vague brown glow. He scrambled, the black water encircling him. His hands sought something solid but found only slimy stone and shattered stairs. He pulled himself towards what he thought was up. His lungs were already burning.
Something cold and soft and fleshy brushed his arm. He whirled in the black waters and the flashlight disappeared from his hand. He caught a glimpse of a white face – impossibly white and bloated – the face of girl. He screamed. Foul water rushed in his open mouth and burning lungs.
His feet brushed something solid and he kicked up. A sudden flash of light, a sharp, searing pain, and black. He closed his eyes and let the darkness envelope him. It was warmer than he expected.