It was a Thursday night and I'd drawn the short straw which in this case was covering night-shift with engineer Ivor. I wouldn't say I was exactly the happy-go-lucky type but I do try to look for the good in people. Engineer Ivor however, seemed to live his life under a perpetual rain-cloud and did his best to make everyone else feel just as miserable as himself. Engineer Ivor was a short man, somewhere in his late fifties, with a ruddy red face and the look of someone who had just been caught unexpectedly in a ferocious wind-storm. His playful wisps of thinning hair had ambitions of becoming comedy performers and enjoyed nothing more than creating risqué shapes on the polished stage of his pinking scalp.
These impromptu performances, when discovered, were cruelly swept skull ward with a well-practiced swipe. Ivor liked to be in control, especially when it came to his own head. He came from a village in the far north of Scotland. It was a bleak, rain lashed place, perched near the edge of unforgiving cliffs. Countless ships had been dashed on the rocks that lurked just below the sea’s surface. There were legends of sirens living nearby. They’d sing their songs, the unlucky mariners would lose their marbles and point their vessels towards the cliffs. The last thing many of them saw was the sight of the sirens shaking their heads in disbelief at how easy it was to lead a man to his doom. Nobody had a good word to say about the place. The advice to tourists looking to stop in the area was simple: Don't! If the rain or the cliffs didn't get you then you may be unfortunate enough to be accosted by one of Ivor's clan. He always wore a short sleeved white shirt with dirty brown tie combination, along with a pair of thick black woollen trousers that were at least two sizes too big and as such were constantly playing peek-a-boo with Ivor’s most sensible white Y-fronts. Quite why he didn’t wear a belt wasn’t clear though he was spotted once, at a leaving-do that he just couldn’t get out of, sporting a pair of rather dapper silver braces.
His usual look was finished off with large steel toe capped boots and his trusty yellow oilskin jacket which was never more than grabbing distance away from his person. Ivor kept so much kit in his jacket that it could have been weaved by an experimental faction of the magic circle. It was jammed full of notebooks, site plans, measuring tapes, nails, hammers, at least three calculators and various other secret engineering devices that Ivor didn’t like to talk of. I knew for a fact that he kept a creamy white rabbit’s foot in there; I’d seen him rubbing at it on more than one occasion, usually when the pressure was getting to him and he was struggling with the little devils that liked nothing more than to unscrew the lid of his famous temper. I’d tried my best to be civil to him but you can only beat your head against a brick wall for so long before you either see stars, break something important or wise up.
He just wasn’t interested. So, I put up with him. His gruff manner; his tendency to bark unintelligible phrases at you from a distance and expect you to know what they meant; his head shaking, his you’re an idiot looks; the long drives from site to site spent in silence as he refused to get into a conversation unless it was directly to do with work. He’d even removed the car stereo as he said it interfered with his thinking time. There was a lot going on in the inside of Ivor’s head but it was a private show with absolutely no admittance. He had next to no time for anyone he came into contact with, regardless of where they were in the work food-chain. Councillors, contract mangers, client engineers, department heads, foremen, labourers all got the gruff treatment. I had no idea if he was married or the last of the highland hermits. He could have has six wives and lived in a castle for all I knew. He just never let on. My guess was that he lived out in the woods somewhere with a stockpile of tomato soup and salt tablets in preparation for the impending day of judgement. As for me; I was treated like his own personal mule. I often found myself being loaded up with stacks of engineering paraphernalia and told to giddy-up in a vague direction usually ten yards behind the pathfinder general as he strode off across a site to peer at something suspiciously through his level. When people had first heard that I’d been teamed with him I had more than a few sarcastic comments; bad luck, never mind, and been nice knowing you. At that point in time I was sure that he couldn’t be all that bad. Surely, somewhere in there lurked a sweet natured old bloke who just needed coaxed out, like a wary cat that hides under a shed. I just had to find out what his saucer of milk was. Then, a possible breakthrough, a nugget of personal information about the mysterious habits of the Ivor came my way.
“So Ivor, I hear that you play the fiddle,” I said.
No response was the response from Ivor. Not an eyebrow was raised. If he’d been rigged up to a heart monitor then it would have continued to display activity usually only seen in creatures in deep hibernation. Not one to be easily put off, I tried again.
“Do you play the fiddle then?”
I looked over at him. His knuckles were turning a serious shade of white as he put the steering wheel into the early stages of the Ivor death grip.
“I heard that you were pretty good, in your younger days that is.”
I wondered if a small white lie might prod the old grizzly out of his conversation hibernation.
“Nobody you know would know anything about that,” he growled.
“You’d be surprised who I know, anyway, it’s nothing to be ashamed of,” I poked.
“I’m not. Why are you so interested all of a sudden?”
“Well, I play a bit myself.”
“You play the fiddle?”
“No, it’s the bass I play”
“The double bass, you’re a bit small for that aren’t you?”
“No and no. Electric bass, actually.”
“Electric. Call that a real instrument do you?”
“I’ve no purchase with electric music.”
“Really. Why, how old are you?”
“I’m old enough to know better.”
“You don’t like any electric music? What about the Beatles, you must like them. Everybody likes them, don’t they?”
“No I don’t. I’ve no time for that kind of thing. It’ll not creep over into my space, not if I have anything to do with it.”
“Is that why you ripped the stereo out of the car, in case someone tried to play something on it?”
“It’s hard enough trying to escape it these days. I’m not going to invite it into my own house.”
“Where is it that you stay again?”
“None of your business!”
“Mmm. You should give it a try, you might like it, they even use the odd fiddle.”
“That’s not music. Electric bass indeed. Whatever next. There’s no place for electric instruments, it changes them into something that they were never supposed to be. You wouldn’t have any dealings with someone who was wired up to the mains would you, screaming and feeding back all over the place?”
“It’s hardly the same thing.”
“It’s exactly the same thing. Its electricity that swept away all the music that was handed down, hand to hand, mouth to mouth, for hundreds of years. It’s got a lot to answer for.”
“I’ll do you a compilation if you want and you can give them a listen.”
“I’d rather spend my time herding cats than waste my time on that.”
I must admit that left me a bit stumped. We pulled up to the site and Ivor had his seat belt off and was out of the car faster than I could say Sergeant Pepper’s. After that, any mention of music in Ivor’s direction was brushed away with a contemptuous whuff. I was pleased that I’d managed to get him talking though. I’d just have to bide my time.
The night-shift drill was usually straight forward enough. The Roads Department supervised several sites in the city which were working through the night and our job was to take a tour around them and provide any engineering back-up that was needed. That part came from Ivor, of course. I was really only there to act as his pack-mule and messenger boy. If anyone was going to be getting flogged for delivering the bad news then that would be me. Ivor was the smart end of the tape; the brains of the outfit. He probably kept it in one of his many pockets. The shift was seven to seven with the first few hours spent in the office. The real fun didn’t usually start until after midnight, when we went out on patrol.
Ivor wasn’t one for wiling away his time staring into space, unlike yours truly. He spent this first part of the evening transcribing the scribbles from one or more of his site notebooks into the larger and never to be taken outside of this room notebooks. The office notebooks were then locked away in a desk drawer, only to surface on the next occasion that Ivor furnished them with a fresh batch of updates. The sight of Ivor, hunched over this tomes, with his angle poised lamp low enough to burn a hole through the paper, scratching away with an ancient fountain pen put me in mind a monk painstakingly scratching on an ancient parchment. Ivor would have made a good monk, I thought. He wouldn’t need to speak to anyone for a start, something that he already excelled in. He’d probably derive some masochistic pleasure from growing old and withered while writing up the important knowledge of the day. It certainly did the trick in keeping those monks busy. The last thing society needs are large groups of religious types with too much time on their hands and no mundane and tedious tasks to keep them occupied. That sort of situation leads to nothing but trouble.
“What are you up to Ivor?” I ventured across the room. I wasn’t holding out much hope of a reply.
“What does it look like?” snipped a voice after a satellite delay.
“Are you working on your book again?”
“It’s better than gazing at you own navel”
“How’s it coming along? Has anyone been murdered yet?”
“No, but the night's still young.”
Wow, Ivor was on fire tonight, he must have upped his sugar lump dosage.
“Why don’t you type that up on the computer? Is it something to do with it being plugged in at the wall?”
“Very funny. I’d rather do it this way thanks very much. For one thing it means that it doesn’t fall into the wrong hands, or in front of the wrong pair of eyes.”
“Well, as long as no one breaks into the secret hiding place.”
“I’ve got all the originals safe, it can all be done again by hand if it comes to that.”
“It’s not exactly top-secret though is it? Measurements and notes and little doodles of men in diggers.”
“You don’t know what you’re talking about. Why don’t you go back to sleep and let the big folk get on with their work in peace?”
“Will I put on some music?”
“Do you want to spend the rest of the shift knocking steel pins into reinforced concrete?”
“I’ll take that as a no then.”
He went back to his scratchy writing. The thought of a wee nap was quite appealing, though I knew I’d never manage to drop off with all that squeaking and scraping going on across the room. I thought about going for a wander around the deserted building in search of ghosts and clandestine liaisons. Then the phone rang on Ivor’s desk.
There was something ominous about the sound of that phone. It was like a sound remembered from a dream; a star crossed ring tone full of fate. A loud group of what ifs barged into a queue in front of me. What if, I hadn’t been on the night shift that night; What if I’d been paired with another engineer, one who didn’t spend the first few hours of each shift in the office; What if the call had come in after we’d left, or before we’d turned up; What if the voice on the other end of the phone had decided to call another number; and any of an infinite number of possibilities then things would have been different. But no. All the little cogs had lined up. Everything had clicked into place out there in the ether of possibilities and the result was that I was sitting there in that room with the phone ringing on Ivor’s desk and a tingling feeling in my toes. Ivor just looked at it for a while, probably hoping that they’d give up after a few rings but it kept on ringing and ringing. The phone in question never usually rang, certainly not on a night shift. It could only be a wrong number or one of the sites wanting something urgent that involved us. Highly unlikely, I thought.
Ivor picked it up and with his telephone training topper most in his mind said “What?”
I watched from across the room. Ivor’s apple red cheeks drained to a polo mint white in seconds and his wayward hair took the opportunity to stand up as if he’d plugged himself into the mains. He wouldn’t have liked that in so many ways. Ivor put down the phone and stared over at me with a look of panic in his eyes. This didn't stop him from carefully closing his big-book, putting it in the drawer, locking it and then giving the locked door a good tug, just in case it sprang open anyway and the secrets of the ancients fell into the wrong hands. He got up from behind his desk, pulled on his multi pocketed coat and for once spoke to me unprompted.
“Get your coat,” said Ivor.
I couldn't help myself and cheerily replied “Have I pulled?”
I wasn't surprised to see that this fell on deaf ears; Ivor had already marched past and was heading for the exit.
Chapter 3: An Arachnid assassin
“Where are we off to in such a hurry?” I ventured as we sped out of the council car park at a rate of knots not usually associated with the quiet man of the North’s Sunday outing driving style. Ivor gripped the wheel like a man transfixed. I didn't like the look of him at the best of times but the emergence of this foot-to-the-floor zombie style driver was as unsettling as it was unexpected. He kept checking the rear view mirror and I was sure I could hear him humming to himself, another first. I thought about giving him that Beatles CD that I'd made for him but on consideration I decided to leave it until a time when he wasn't running with the moon.
We screeched to a stop on the junction of George Street and Hanover Street. Ivor was out of the car faster than I could say Starsky and Hutch and started marching off down Hanover Street towards Queen Street. I shook my head as I watched him stamping off into the night. What had got into him? In the distance, an almost full moon was pinned low in the skies. In lent an eerie glow to the city skyline which swept downhill towards the dark slither that was the waters of the Firth of Forth and the outline of the Fife hills beyond. For a moment Ivor’s silhouette was backlit by the moon and the scene put me in mind of one of those dark cartoons where creatures with stick bodies and oversized heads scare the bejesus out of unsuspecting town dwellers.
I almost expected the shape of an enormous spider to emerge from behind the hills of Fife, its burning red eyes looking out over the city where it would wreak its fevered revenge. A thought occurred to me: Perhaps the spider was the one controlling engineer Ivor? He never did say who had been on the other end of the phone. Had it sent out a weird signal via the phone network with all those that picked up rendered spellbound by the superior intelligence of an arachnid assassin? It was a question I'd never thought I'd ask.
Could it be that at that very moment, all over the city people, were scurrying sightlessly towards a sticky web-based doom? What would become of them all? Would any of them escape or perhaps pass through in one piece? It brought a whole new angle to the practice of cold calling. Maybe I'd better not be so cheeky to them next time. I was pretty sure I was wide of the mark on this one though. There were no murderous giant spiders in Fife. I was almost certain of that. Meanwhile, Ivor had disappeared from view. I knew I should be following him like a dim but faithful dog. I was supposed to be his sidekick for the evening. Robin to his Batman. Without the shiny tights and the pixie boots though obviously. That sort of thing would be frowned upon within the corridors of power at the council.
I knew he’d be back soon enough when he needed someone to hold the end of the tape. Or when some large inanimate object had to be carried across the site. I’d get volunteered for that little job no doubt. I leaned over and checked the ignition. He’d left the keys in there and the driver’s door was wide open. I fished the keys from the ignition, pulled the driver’s door closed, got out of the car and locked it. You can’t be too careful, especially with a boot full of rather expensive engineering kit.
“You wouldn’t be so absent minded if your office notebook was in the car, would you?” I asked in Ivor’s general direction. I ambled off into the site to see if I could find him. I marvelled at the size of the moon in the sky. It looked like it had been genetically modified. Or perhaps it was being inflated from within by invisible forces hell-bent on the over inflation of satellites. I did hope that the balloon-moon wasn’t about to go POP! It looked close enough to do considerable damage to a city that was already under attack by a B-movie marauder. Tomorrow’s Daily Target wouldn’t know what to run on page one.
We had been to the Hanover Street works before. We'd taken part in the great drainage pipe hunt. The section of road in question was approximately 200 meters long and 10 meters wide. The pipe to be located was clearly marked on the site drawings but when the excavations had begun it was apparent that there was no pipe in that location. Then, the site engineer owned up to having the plans upside down and so they dug up the other side of the street too. Still no sign of any pipes though. Having the two trenches running was making it very difficult to carry out any of the other works on the site. At one point a lorry delivering materials had managed to reverse over one of the trenches getting its back axle jammed stuck. While trying to drag itself out, the lorry had got itself completely stuck and had to be lifted out by a mobile crane. The word “mobile” gave the impression that the crane would be agile and manoeuvrable but it turned out to be so big that an entire section of the city centre had to be cordoned off in order to move it into place. The huge arm of the crane eventually plucked the hapless lorry from its entrenched residence with the ease of King Kong plucking petals off a daisy. The weight of the crane, however, had caused considerable damage to road surface on George Street and had left sets of tracks in the tarmac that were going to cost a lot more than the price of a lorry to put right. None of this had helped locate the elusive pipes.
The site engineer, Darrius Malinowski, a graduate of the Gdansk College for Engineering, had been employed on a no questions asked basis by the contractor AbleCon. Darrius’s English was excellent but his engineering skills weren’t up to much. He had a history of cobbled together CV’s and anyone that looked hard enough would establish a clear trail of engineering calamities to which he was tenuously linked including the infamous Red Hat Tower collapse in Malaysia, after which Mr Malinowski had gone mysteriously underground. He'd reappeared in Edinburgh city centre unlike those pesky pipes. Ivor was surprisingly philosophical about this point by saying “Aye, they can be mysterious beasties. Supposed to be somewhere but end up being somewhere else. They’re not expected to move about when they’ve been buried but that doesn’t stop them.”
The scene was eerily quiet. Nothing seemed to be moving. No machines were out digging or moving around. No groups of night-shift labourers were kidding on they were busy while leaning on shovels. No buzzing generators running hand tools and lights. Why was it so dark? Where was everybody? I picked my way down the edge of the road, being careful not to slip into the one of the open trenches. I almost walked straight past them and stepped into the void.
'STOP!' shouted Ivor's voice. I did what I was told. I looked around to see the murky faces of Ivor, Darrius and half a dozen assorted labourers and machine-men, the whites of their eyes floating spookily in the gloom.
'Who turned out the lights?' I asked to no one in particular.
I didn't get an answer. “Ivor's influence must be contagious,” I thought.
“Step back from the edge!” barked Ivor.
I hadn't realised I was at the edge. Stupidly I did what anyone standing at the edge shouldn't do. I looked over. The words 'staring into the abyss' loomed large in my mind. I was standing on the edge of an enormous hole. It ran all the way down to the next junction, a distance of around 100 meters and took up the full width of the road, disappearing below the level of the pavements on each side. I stared into it but all I could see was black. Even I knew, with my limited knowledge of what was going on in Hanover Street, that there was no mention of creating a gaping crater in the centre of Edinburgh. That definitely wasn't on the plans.
“What the …” I said.
“That's what I said,” said Ivor, before adding, “Just what have you boys been up to down here? What have you done to my street?” There was much shuffling and looking at feet amongst the gathered crew. After an awkward pause Old Lachlan, the site foreman, broke the silence. He was an ex-Sergeant Major type whose boots were kept sparklingly shiny, a trait which had earned him the name Twinkle-Toes amongst the braver of the workers. Behind his back of course. Never to his face.
“Well, Mr Ivor,” piped up Lachlan. “It was just starting to get dark. We were firing up the gennies, you know, for the flood lights and what not. That's when the noise started. I wondered what on Earth it was, thought it was that damned crane rolling back in, you know, the one that made those nice tracks all the way up George Street. But no, there was no oversized crane bearing down on us. An awful sound it was. Sounded like the belly of the city was turning over, ready to throw up over everything. I for one wouldn't want to be standing in the wrong place if that ever happened.”
“Thanks Lachlan, nice image,” I squirmed.
“That's what I thought anyway. It seemed to be coming from underneath our feet,” said Lachlan.
“So, was it an earthquake then? A tremor?” I asked.
“It could have been but there was no shaking of the ground, no windows shattering or masonry falling off the buildings on the side of the street. So, I don't think it was. It seemed to be happening right under where we were. It was like there was something moving down there. Something that had just woken up ...”
“Like a giant worm,” giggled one of the labourers
“Maybe it’s the one that ate those pipes we've all been looking for, hungry fellas when they get to that size,” he added.
A few of the men were bent over so far at this that they nearly fell into the hole. I wondered how long it would take for them to hit the bottom with a dull thud or an echoing splash.
“Don't be daft,” growled Old Lachlan
“Just look what it did to the road, that's no sink-hole you know, that's been waiting to happen for a long, long time and we're all lucky that we weren't standing on top of it when it did go. We've all been running up and down this stretch for the last couple of weeks. Someone's looking out for us if we're all still topside and breathing.” This seemed to dampen the hilarity somewhat. Old Lachlan had everyone's attention so he continued;
“The sound, whatever it was and where ever it was coming from, got louder and louder. It was an awful, muffled groan of a thing, like nothing I've ever heard before and I hope I don't have to hear it again. Just as suddenly as it started, it stopped. Well, those of us that were there just looked at each other and didn't say a word. The next thing, suddenly and without warning, the whole section of the road just fell away and disappeared into the bowels.”
This stared off another round of giggles. Old Lachlan certainly knew how to raise a laugh.
“Disappeared?” asked Ivor.
“That's right,” answered Old Lachlan
“Look at the buildings, not a mark, not a single window broken or a piece of masonry cracked. Even the lights are still on. Thank the Lord for small mercies”
We all looked round and realised that he was right. The lights from the windows overlooking Hanover Street were lit up as if nothing had happened. The silhouettes of people were framed in the windows. They were probably wondering what on earth the council was up to now, keeping them awake half the night and now carelessly misplacing the whole street. Ivor was staring into the void and stroking his chin. I reckoned he was just about to crack a joke or maybe start a bit of a sing-a-long. I was wrong. He just stood there, keeping the thoughts that were running under his furrowed brow to himself. He snapped out of it fast enough, taking us all by surprise when he barked;
“Why are there no lights on the site?”
“That would be the generators,” replied Old Lachlan, somewhat sheepishly.
“Have they stopped working?”
“You could say that, they all went into the hole.”
“Into the hole? Did anything else go in there?”
“Well, you'll be glad to hear that none of the men went in. At least, as far as we know.”
“Dare I ask how you know this?” asked Ivor with an eyebrow raised.
“You can. We got everyone together and counted them. We're pretty sure everyone's accounted for. Though, saying that it is pretty dark out here so we might have missed someone. Someone small maybe, or hard to make out in low lighting,” said Old Lachlan, rather unconvincingly.
“So are you saying that there's a chance that someone might have gone in there, along with the generators?” asked Ivor.
“I think we'd have heard them by now,” said Old Lachlan. “Anyway, I counted them all myself. I'm as sure as I can be for someone who's standing in the dark next to a big hole in the ground that is. Of course the lights did end up going in there so it is possible that someone could have got dragged in along with them. Very difficult to untangle yourself if you're getting pulled down by a set of temporary traffic lights.”
“Not something that’s really covered in the Health and Safety training then?” asked Ivor.
Old Lachlan just looked blank. He’d probably heard of Health and Safety but I wouldn’t have been surprised if he thought they were a couple of cheeky chaps from Newcastle that presented TV shows.
“We've no idea how deep it is yet; it’s too dark to see to the bottom,” said Old Lachlan. Ivor looked around, scratched his head and looked to the skies. I thought he was going to say “Give me strength” or maybe just “Why me?” but instead he said;
“Well, we'll need to get some lights up and running. Let’s run a feed off the main supply, get this place lit up and then we can see how much damage has really been done. Maybe then we’ll be able to see for sure what else has gone into the hole.”
“Good idea,” said Old Lachlan who started to snap out instructions to no one in particular.
“Alright, let’s make sure the site is cordoned off completely, last thing we need is someone wandering in here and going plop! It’s a lot easier getting in there than getting out!” This was met with an affirmative murmur from the assembled throng. Old Lachlan, on a roll now, carried on talking;
“We'll need to get these buildings cleared of people. Has anyone phoned the fire service?”
A puzzled silence was broken by a faint voice from the back;
“What for, there's no fire?” muttered a seemingly ownerless voice.
“Not yet!” barked back Old Lachlan. “This whole street could slide into the crater. You wouldn’t want that now would you? We're going to get all these people out of their buildings and off to somewhere safe for the night. I tell you what, I'll phone them. If you want something done, eh?”
That should have been the first thing he did when a huge unscheduled hole appeared, I thought. I watched Old Lachlan marching off into the moonlight in the direction of the site office. I realised while watching him that it must have been Old Lachlan that had phoned Ivor earlier on in the evening. If that was correct then my spider idea was blown clean out of the water. I could see Old Lachlan’s legs disappearing into the gloom from where I was standing and there was definitely only the two of them. They made an even, rhythmic, scrunch as they made their way across the muddy site, each one crowned with a shiny boot.
The fire brigade arrived and set about evacuating the residents of Hanover Street. Luckily, the street is lined with offices, hairdressers and restaurants, all of which were closed at that time of night. With only a few flats to evacuate the whole operation was done within an hour. The sight of a large section of their street caving in was enough to give most people the motivation to move with no questions asked. Ivor supervised the “fortification” of the site, to protect any of the unsuspecting or over-curious from falling into the pit.
This consisted of Ivor barking orders at Old Lachlan who then barked them at someone else until eventually a barrier was put up or a cone was cunningly positioned. Various nameless labourers were dispatched to run red and white tape round the edges of the site boundaries or to put up some makeshift “DANGER - KEEP OUT” signs. Sentries were posted at any openings, with strict orders to shoot anyone that tried to gain unauthorised entry to the site. Or at least tell them to go away. Old Lachlan assured the fire-chief that there was no one missing and so there was no need to send any of his men into the hole to do a search, at least not that night. With everything under control Ivor decided that his job was done and we exited the scene. I looked back to see Old Lachlan and the Fire Chief standing near the edge of the hole, Old Lachlan pointing a gnarled old finger ominously downwards.