The second time that Marnie Stanvelt shows up at the (highly nondescript) Bureau of Malignant Phenomena, it’s ten pm on a Thursday, and pissing down buckets. She doesn’t bother removing her boots, leaving a snail-trail of muddy water across the yellowing linoleum. Thea, the omnipresent receptionist, lets her hammer the call bell for a good minute before bothering to look up. Her greying hair falls over her tortoiseshell glasses in neat curls.
‘We’re closed.’ She wraps her hands around a steaming coffee mug. It’s freshly brewed.
‘I hope you choke on that,’ Marnie informs Thea, scowling, though it’s not very effective with rain dripping into her eyes and squelching into her socks.
‘Is there anything I can help you with, tonight?’ The light of the computer reflects off Thea’s spectacles, faintly green as it limns the crags of her face. ‘Our typical business hours are listed as five-to-seven-pm.’
Marnie rummages in her pockets, producing a compact-camera and an envelope of photos. ‘There is something, actually,’ she says, ‘and I’m not leaving until you can look me in the eyes and tell me this isn’t the weirdest shit you’ve ever seen.’
‘Weirder than that cat run over by a car?’
‘I’m telling you, that’s not what—yes. Weirder than that.’
The photos, when removed from the envelope, are from a few days ago. They’re grainy and sepia-tinted, but Marnie doesn’t care when the subjects are clear enough. Thea waits for her to slap them down before she leans forward, sliding her desk lamp over for a better look.
Earlier this week, Marnie made the effort of climbing down to the sewers and braving their depths in a two am chill. The results lie on the peeling Formica-topped desk before them. She waits for Thea to sift through the detritus, hovering over the one of the mangled cat from below 27th and Rue Street. It goes unmentioned by both of them that she’s the reason it’s down there in the first place.
It went like this: a few days before The Sewer Trip, Marnie found a cat with its stomach ripped open down the street from her flat. The thing’s paws had been chewed off in hunks, with the legs splayed about its gutted belly. She’s ashamed of it now, but she shoved the cat in a plastic bag and threw it down the gutter. And sure, sue her. It was a beastly thing to do, but the sight of it had sent such a chill through the lining of her teeth, the kind that tugs at open nerve endings and splits them wide. The mangled cat felt like a threat. More so when she nearly walked right over its rotting cadaver in the tunnels. And so she turned it in to Thea, who’s been the receptionist of the Bureau since probably the 1800s.
Thea taps a plum-lacquered nail on one of the later photos. It resembles nothing so much as a monstrous warren of a sewer tunnel, the brick walls prised apart by roots the size of Marnie’s forearm. (She knows; she measured.) Even shot with an old Kodak and a torch-light, the image picks up glimmers of bloated corpses, their tails knotted together. Wheels of dead rodents floating in the shallow bilge-water. ‘These look like rat kings,’ she says.
‘Rat kings. It’s when a bunch of them get stuck together by their tails, usually with sap or something else sticky.’ Thea taps at her keyboard, then twists the computer monitor around. It’s archived material, Marnie guesses—a full-colour image of a specimen box and a tangle of rats inside.
‘Huh. Creepy.’ It takes a moment for Marnie to get her bearings again, the way she’s been doing more and more lately. Part of her feels like it’s still there in the sewers. Maybe coming here wasn’t the best idea. There’s a lingering, ever-present smell in the office building, something like potpourri and vinegar, and it’s pulsing a headache through her temples.
Thea makes a face that could almost be a smile. ‘Photos are plenty malleable, I want to make that clear. But when a woman sloshes into your office with something this interesting, you begin to entertain, just the tiniest bit, the notion that her statement’s worth looking into after all.’ She clicks around with her mouse, then jabs a finger at the ‘Enter’ key.
Something below her desk makes a death rattle as she plucks a sheaf of papers from the unseen printer. The half hour that follows instils vicious loathing for bureaucracy that Marnie will carry for the rest of her life, probably, as Thea drags her through a formal statement of paranormal esoterica.
Yes, she did first encounter signs while working on the subterranean storm drain expansion. Yes, she’s the main worker tasked with the deeper sewers that nobody else will even touch. Eventually, they work their way towards the Associated Phenomena section, during which Thea’s jaw works tighter and tighter as Marnie bleats about scores of red-tinged eyes while she worked in the tunnels.
The really nasty bit comes when she mentions the kid who asked her for a cigarette yesterday. She couldn’t be older than fifteen, but her eyes stared Marnie down as she shuffled towards the maintenance entrance and clocked in.
‘Got a smoke?’ the girl asks.
‘Definitely not,’ past-Marnie gawks. She notices, with her hindsight-sharp eyes, that the kid’s dark cheeks are hollowed from the inside out. Now-Marnie watches absently as Thea’s lips press into a thin line, writing it all down.
The girl laughs. It sounds like teeth hitting the ground and cracking apart. ‘They’re wrong about the walls having ears, you know.’ She looks around emphatically at the empty dawn streets, then takes a pack of Marlboro’s from her jeans and puts one in her mouth. ‘It’s the gutters you should be really worried about.’
It’s here that Marnie dips out of yesterday and back into the rickety seat she’s pulled up in front of the desk. Thea waits impatiently with a colour printout, full of faces. MISSING PERSONS, the heading shouts in 35-pt font. Marnie has a bad feeling about it.
(That feeling is correct: the girl grins up at her from the second row. She’s been missing for three days. Her name is there, but Marnie only vaguely registers it.)
Marnie doesn’t mention to Thea the other things. Those moments when she can’t sleep for the sounds of skittering right beneath her floor—persisting even after she’d ripped up the floorboards one night, hands shaking.
She doesn’t mention that this isn’t the first time she’s gone down there off-duty, either. Not even close. Or that she isn’t scared of it, not the way she used to be. That’s—that’s not even the reason she’s here, she thinks, as Thea carefully feeds the images into a banged-up fax machine. She’d been… excited, when the photos had developed. She wanted someone to admit that she was right.
And maybe that’s the nature of secrets. Some secrets can’t help but be dug up. Some rot in the ground for years, pitted with worms and crawlers. Others still burrow into heartflesh, grow fat on blood beneath the breastbones of the guilty who fed them.
There’s an odd sort of poetry in how the worst secrets of all come from underneath—carried in sewer pipes and loamy tunnels. Those ones don’t stay buried. They come looking for food.
But Marnie Stanvelt isn’t pondering the nature of secrets as she pushes out into the night, leaving Thea to sip at her long-cooled coffee. She’s counting down the minutes until the metro gets to the nearest station, until she can tuck herself into bed with a hot water bottle and enough blankets to build the bloody Taj Mahal of pillow forts.
She probably should’ve been thinking more about secrets.
First, it’s the kh-shnnk of a manhole cover sliding over the sound of a thousand scurrying feet—tk-tk-tk-tk-tk-tk-tk-tk. A creeping awareness of how her steps squelch against the pooling water on the pavement, her shoulders hunching further and further inwards. Steady dripping of rain into her cheap earbuds. Water-logged music filtering into her head.
‘Man, you’re bad at taking a hint.’
It’s as if the girl has always been walking next to Marnie, her thin arm looped into hers. She’s wearing cheap sunglasses that don’t quite cover the ghoulish cast to her skin, stringy hair knotted up in clumps and braided with filth. ‘I mean,’ she continues, ‘it’s not like we’ve been that subtle. You’re practically a guest.’ The girl looks up at her with a barbed-wire smile, teeth stained brown. ‘You wouldn’t happen to have a smoke this time, would you?’
Marnie’s earbuds sputter out with a weak crackle, rain trickling past the deadened plastic and into her ears proper. The girl has deteriorated a lot since the photo in the Missing Persons file, as if her skeleton’s begun eating itself down to the marrow. ‘God, tell me you’re not Ingrid Ashram,’ she says weakly. That had been her name on the file, hadn’t it? Her eyes were a bit panic-blurry at the time, but it sounds right. Definitely Ingrid-something. The letters had been squeezed together in an impersonal little lump under her picture, gripping the lower border between hers and the next missing persons’.
The girl starts to snicker. ‘I won’t, if that makes you more comfortable.’ Her fingers bite into Marnie’s elbow with a disquieting kind of over-familiarity. ‘Normally folks seem to like pretending that the people are still here. Adds a bit of humanity to the whole affair.’
Half of this, admittedly, is going over Marnie’s head. It’s the way she talks, all menacing and dancing around the actual point. What does stick the landing, though, is a thought. She looks down at Ingrid, something sickly flooding her stomach.
‘What do you mean, pretending people are still here?’
Ingrid’s face beams as if she’s letting Marnie in on a private joke. It’s a profoundly unsettling thing, her features working in tandem to split open the mouth like a rotting grapefruit. ‘Well, that’s an interesting question,’ she says, reaching a thumb up to wipe some blood from her gums. ‘What is pretending, you know?’
It’s only when the clustered buildings fall into too-familiar shapes that Marnie realises they’re in her own neighbourhood, drifting unerringly closer to her flat on Rue Street. The girl’s—Ingrid’s—footsteps are nimble, skirting around the puddles of light shed by streetlamps as if leading them through a dance.
‘Oh, hold on,’ Ingrid chirps as they approach the side of the road, pulling Marnie to a stop by an open gutter. Marnie winces at the damning streaks of dried blood smeared across the drain lip. ‘A bit rude to dump one’s party favour, but that’s something we can put to rights.’ Her brittle fingers flex as she bends a knee, stirring through the air in a come-hither motion. Her sunglasses betraying nothing but her smiling mouth, Ingrid seems to make direct eye contact as the dead cat is spat from the drain. Even though Marnie can’t see her expression proper; it feels far too old, too self-satisfied to belong on the face of a fifteen-year-old. Behind Ingrid, the gutter flashes with knotted-up tails—rats, hundreds of them, a roiling sea of fur and night-red eyes.
With a one-handed flick, the dead cat soars into Marnie’s arms. A scream gutters and dies in her throat.
Ingrid sits down, right in the middle of the road. ‘But it’s getting late, isn’t it?’
The swarm of rats spills onto the street, a black rippling sheet sewn together with thick, glistening pink veins. They eat up the tarmac, the pavement. Cover every square inch of free space.
‘You’re welcome down there any time you like, of course.’ Ingrid flaps a wasted hand towards the hidden sewers. ‘Same as Ingrid was, the little asshole.’ She lets out a fond chuckle. ‘Oh, she was a fun one to have. I’m glad she stuck around—the others went much more quickly than her.’
The thing wearing Ingrid’s skin removes her sunglasses. The sockets are empty, the eyes rotted away. Worm larvae trail from gaping holes. That rotting-grapefruit mouth peels back again in a friendly grin.
‘Don’t be a stranger, Marnie,’ she says, then pauses thoughtfully. ‘But maybe don’t go tattling again to Thea and her ilk. They’re not ready to deal with the likes of me.’
The street echoes with the sounds of rodents. Hundreds and hundreds of them, as the creature throws back her head and laughs. And Marnie starts to run.
Charlie Adams is a horror folklore enthusiast with a love of video games and things that go bump in the night. Currently a BA Creative Writing undergraduate, Charlie is drawn to fantasy and paranormal fiction with dreams of writing the next cult indie game. Her past works are lost to time (and several government cover-ups).