The car sped swiftly down that dark road. The tunnel wasn’t completely devoid of light, as it had initially seemed. Soft glows, regularly spaced on both sides of the road, emanated from ceiling panels. Together with the reflection of the headlights, there was just enough illumination to paint the interior of the Uber into thick, shadowy shapes. The only other light came from the screen of the driver’s phone; a rectangular block of faux light bobbing up and down above the gearshift.
The display of the navigation app hadn’t changed significantly for a long time. The tunnel appeared more or less straight with neither exit nor end, and the little vehicle icon followed it diligently. Where normally would be the driving directions and remaining travel time was left blank.
After the initial screaming and cursing had left him with a throbbing headache and an aching throat, the backseat had become a flurry of scratching and scrabbling as Howard had tried to break free of his restraints. But the seat belt had constricted further, making it impossible to squirm his head and shoulders through the bottom gap. He had tried to grab the seat in front of him, but, oddly enough, it was too… distant. His outstretched hands were just a tad too short to reach it, even as the dimensions of the car appeared normal. Eventually, he had given up, and, staring at the headrest in front of him, he again considered all that had occurred.
He was dead. Either that, or this was the cruellest of kidnapping prank of all time. Perhaps there was concealed video camera pointed straight at him, ready to upload his desperation onto YouTube for the world to see. Even so, he would have given anything for that to be true, but as the tunnel stretched on and on, he realized that he had long stopped believing that.
The radio had cut out at some point upon entering the tunnel. He had been too preoccupied to notice exactly when, but the only sounds now were that of the car and his soft panting. Howard pulled out his phone, but as he suspected, it had no reception, even as the icon on Phil’s phone continued to trundle along without issue. He stowed it away hastily. Just the act of checking his phone seemed inappropriate, given the circumstances.
His driver had been quiet, checking his watch every now and then, pointedly ignoring the barrage of demands and obscenities directed his way. It was nearly impossible to make out any of his features in the grim darkness of the tunnel. Phil wore a long-sleeved shirt, which Howard recalled was a pale work blue. His hair was short and black, and he wore no headgear or earring. In any other circumstance, he could have been just another Uber driver, or in fact any working professional on his daily commute.
“Where are you taking me?” Howard ventured abruptly. He didn’t expect a response, but Phil cocked his head.
“You’ll see when we get there. Everyone asks this, and I’m not fond of explaining myself repeatedly. If you want the short answer, it’s obvious. I’m taking you down this road. It’s not long more, even though it doesn’t show here,” he said, waving a hand at his phone.
His intonation was fairly neutral, with a tinge of a Chicago accent in the vowels. It was such a normal voice that Howard felt the chills returning. He glanced at the phone on the dashboard, but nothing had changed. “I wasn’t aware that… a demon had access to modern technology.”
“A demon!” exclaimed Phil. “Well, that certainly isn’t the first time I’ve been called that. Incorrectly so, I must add. Why would you say that?”
“I assumed… you’re taking me to hell?”
“And why would you think that?”
“Well, I thought that heaven would look different.”
“That it does. However, this,” said Phil, gesturing out the window, “is neither. This place is something else entirely. As you can see, it’s a tunnel.”
Howard scanned the tunnel walls flying by. From what he could see, the layout of the brick was a standard, interlocking design, with no discernible change since the start of their journey to mark their passage. He couldn’t even begin to guess how long or far they’d travelled. He turned back to Phil. “It can’t just be a tunnel.”
“You could say that. But what more there is to it is… difficult to pin down. I’ve had people who recognized it immediately, once they were sufficiently cogent. They called it Duat, or Tuoni, or Yomi-no-Kuni.”
Phil glanced backwards briefly. He still wore his sunglasses, and, despite the oddity of the sight, given the dim surroundings, Howard found himself thankful for that.
Phil continued. “But I see these names mean nothing to you. Perhaps you might be familiar with this one: the River Styx.”
Distant memories of a freshman seminar on ancient Greece came to mind. He struggled to remember the details. “Styx? Then you are… the ferryman? Charon?”
His driver shrugged. “People have used that name before. But what are names, in the end? The meaning they hold matters not to me.”
His recollections became clearer. Howard hesitated, then said, “I read that the Greeks used to bury a coin with their dead, so that they could pay the ferryman to take them to the underworld.”
“Do you take bills?”
Phil chuckled. “A joke! And here I was, thinking that we’d never get anywhere. No, that won’t be necessary. And as I said, call me Phil. Phil is a nice name. Doesn’t come with too much historical baggage. Although sometimes I get a Phillip in here, and then I say I’m Trevor. Avoids adding more confusion to the circumstances, you see.”
His cavalier manner struck a nerve. An unexpected surge of fury erupted within Howard, and all of a sudden, he found himself shouting at the top of his lungs.
“How can you just… just say that! You killed me! You killed them – us – all! How… how dare you!” yelled Howard. He rocked back and forth in his seat, the webbing of the seat belt tightening once more.
Phil’s posture stiffened. “Hold it right there, young man. You are again, incorrect. I did not – I do not – kill people. As I said, I’m just here to bring you along.”
He looked back again, this time directly at Howard. Howard tensed, the memory of what he had seen behind those shades still fresh and terrifying, but the sable darkness of the car interior masked all detail. “I am a chauffeur, Howard. Here to take you onwards. What happened to you is your own affair.”
The car continued on in sullen silence for a while. Howard found tears flowing freely on his cheeks, of rage or sorrow or both. The hum of the motor was a steady drone in his ears, almost maddeningly so. He fingered the leather of his briefcase, feeling the hand-stitched seams and metal clasps. They seemed so familiar, yet he hated the touch of them.
If this was death, why did it have to be so drawn out, leaving so much room for thought and regret?
As if reading his thoughts, Phil spoke up. “Who, or what, did you leave behind?”
Howard closed his eyes. The words came slowly, as if dredged from a distant past. “Hannah. My parents and younger brother. My job, my friends, my… my life. There was still so much left. So much left to do and to be.”
He looked down into his lap, and it was wet with guilt. “I… I was just getting started, you know?”
Phil’s gaze was fixed forward, and Howard was left to his grief. After a while, he heard a deep, tired sigh from the front seat.
“I am sorry. Despite what I said before we came down here, I really am.”
The gear of the car changed, and the sound of the motor deepened. The rhythm of the passing lights slowed, and in front, Howard saw a change in their surroundings. The tunnel walls abruptly vanished, and empty space took their place.
They were in a vast, cavernous place. The beams of the headlights stretched as far as light could manage, before dwindling into inky blackness. There might have been a roof, or a starless sky, but as to which Howard could not tell. As the road came to an end, he saw that the surrounding floor was made of stone, uneven and raw, perforated by trails of cracks running amok.
There was a grid of empty parking lots at the end of the road, demarcated neatly by white paint. Phil turned the Camry into one with practiced ease, and pulled the brake. A perfect park. He switched off the engine, and the world was plunged into darkness again.
“Get out. We’re here.”
Next part: Stygian Road [P3]
// AUTHOR’S NOTE – This story part was inspired by a writing prompt on Reddit at /r/WritingPrompts by /u/biochromatic. The prompt is: “I don’t know why everyone makes me out to be a bad guy. I mean, it’s not like I’m the one killing people. I’m just here to walk with you to the afterlife,” the Grim Reaper says to you.