By Stephen Thom
They drove between stretches of rolling hillside. Purple sweeps of heather moorland, woodland, open grassland and reservoirs. The sat nav chimed:
'In one thousand feet, turn left.'
'I don't really know what a thousand feet looks like,' Mina muttered.
Gillis was fiddling with his phone.
'Pentland Hills Regional Park?' He said.
'A house by Loganlea Reservoir,' Mina nodded, pulling the wheel down as they turned onto a small pathway between green swells. 'On the shores.'
Gillis looked back at his phone screen and pulled up Google. He clicked on the search bar and typed 'Chthonic', scrolling down to the 'definition' suggested search.
Relating to or inhabiting the underworld.
He slipped his phone back into his pocket and sat in silence, chewing his inner lip. The path wound towards a large two-storey cottage with a gabled roof, set between acres of hillside. They pulled up alongside two police cars and stepped out.
Gillis rolled his shoulders and stretched. The country air was crisp and bracing and he felt the propananol fuzz leaving him. The busy social anxiety pitfalls of Gayfield Station were a distant memory. Mina was clipping up the driveway to the cottage door. The windows on either side were boarded up.
He scoped the area. It was certainly private. Logan Burn glimmered beyond the house, snaking between heather-bedecked hills. Outbuildings: a byre. Empty kennels. Some kind of workshop. A paddock garden. A tattered rope swing hung from a lonely tree. Blackface sheep grazed on the surrounding hills, utterly disinterested in them.
The garden looked overgrown, untended. It was a good spot, Gillis figured. Probably a shepherd's cottage, once upon a time. Prime location. It felt like they were a million miles from city life, yet they were only thirteen miles outside Edinburgh.
The wind blew a chill and he walked up the driveway and through the open door. Mina was in the hallway, talking to a young officer with latex gloves on and too much gel in his hair. There was a tight staircase just behind them, sandwiched between two walls. Several other uniforms were roving about the kitchen and living room. Gillis strode over. The greasy-haired lad eyed the laminated pass clipped to his lapel.
'This is DI Gillis,' Mina said, gesturing towards him. 'He's on secondment from Northern Constabulary.'
The lad's forehead wrinkled. He gathered himself and led them over to a window, peering out a substantial gap in the wooden boards.
'We've been whittling down the options all afternoon,' he said. 'I thought it looked good, but I'm beginning to think we've got the wrong place now.'
Mina glanced at Gillis. The lad shuffled.
'It did... it did seem to figure. You're never going to be able to pin down the exact location of a host going by an IP address, but also, it's not exactly a teeming suburbia out here. And it is weird, a place like this sitting dead, unused. Great location... views like that outside your front door.'
Gillis watched the gap. Sheep lazing about a field beyond the overgrown garden. The lad looked at him.
'We've not turned up the server,' he said. 'Anything, really... people have definitely been here. There's fag ends. Couple of beer bottles in the kitchen bin.'
Mina was pulling a pair of blue latex gloves on.
'All right, let's take a look,' she said, brushing past them.
Gillis dipped his head at a circle of four officers as he stalked through the living room. They nodded in acknowledgement. He trailed his own gloved hand over the mantelpiece. It was caked in dust.
'One of yous open your wallet in here, lads?' He tried.
The uniforms stared blankly back at him. He sighed and examined the rest of the room. Ancient furniture. Faded floral upholstery. The patterns on the wallpaper had waned into blotched, abstract bursts. Someone was bagging up the cigarette butts from an ashtray on a rickety coffee table.
He walked back to the hall. He stuck his head into the kitchen and saw Mina opening cupboard doors. Patches of light leaked through the wooden slats on the window and over the dining table. A single wooden chair was squared away at the head of the table.
Turning back, he ascended the stairs, gripping the thin metal banisters on either side. The landing was creaky. Dust coated the floor and he suppressed a sneeze. He tried the two bedrooms along the upper level. Empty beds. Foosty sheets. A mirror above the headboard of one bed, stained with streaks. Bare shelves. He flung cupboards open. Lonely wire coathangers hung on rails.
Pulling a scrap of tissue from his pocket, he wiped his nose. He descended the stairs, tapping at the walls. Mina waited below. Her arms were crossed and she was turning slowly in a circle, staring at the ceiling, the walls.
Gillis stopped halfway down the staircase. He stamped his foot. Mina flinched and turned to watch him. He walked back up, bringing his foot crashing down on each step. Dust particles flowered amongst the knives of light escaping through the window boards. Gillis lurched excitedly down to the bottom of the staircase, turning to stoop at the final step. Gripping its ridged edge, he lifted.
The entire staircase swung up into the air in a series of dry wooden clicks, sliding into place and settling at a rough forty-five degree angle above his head. A second staircase was exposed beneath it, descending in an inverse direction. Dust motes floated in the empty void between the two stairways.
Mina'a eyebrows pitched upwards. She whistled. Gillis turned and gave her a weary thumbs-up.
'And if I contribute absolutely nothing else... ' he wheezed.
Mina joined him at the edge of the freshly-revealed staircase, and crouched down. Officers filed through from the kitchen and living room to gather round them.
'Sorry, were you contributing?' She said, squinting into the darkness below.
'Aye, ok, let's start over. Hi, I'm DI Gillis, I'm on secondment from Northern Constabulary.'
'That's not becoming,' Mina whispered.
'Aye, not becoming a decent detective again. Torches?'
The greasy-haired lad separated from the crowd behind them, and returned bearing a heavy black kit bag. They divvied up torches and descended, spilling raw, lemony shafts into the gloom.
The air seemed to have a rancid, gummy texture. There was only five steps. At the base they walked through a doorway into a small, concrete room with a low ceiling. Gillis trailed his gloved fingers. The doorway was reinforced concrete. The walls, floor, and ceiling were concrete. It was very unusual.
Mina paced forward and angled her torch. A row of desks lined the far wall. Sockets punched amongst the concrete. On the desks there were two closed laptops and a computer. A black server rack to the right of the desks.
Mina spun round. Gillis's eyes stung in the jet of torch light.
'Get the surrounding area cordoned off as best as you can. All the search team vehicles over here. Get on the radio and have SOCOs out here asap. Lights and generators sent out. I want armed officers present.'
The lad scrambled back up the stairs. Mina leaned over the desks. The torch hung by her side, casting a yellow puddle over the floor. Gillis circled the room. His own torch fell on a steel grate squatted in a corner behind them, opposite the desks. He moved forward and kneeled down.
'Don't touch anything,' Mina whispered behind him.
Gillis ran his fingers over the edges of the frame. It was a heavy-duty hearth grate. He wrapped his hands around the large steel bars and shifted it aside. There was an opening in the base of the wall. A crawl space.
'Ah, fuck,' he whispered. Mina was by his side.
'Contaminating evidence? Maintaining the integrity of the locus?' She said, aiming her torch into the hole.
'No performance management, please,' he breathed, lifting a loose chunk of concrete from beside the grate and lobbing it into the opening. They heard it rattle in the distance.
Gillis looked up at Mina. Her torch was angled into the hole and her face was masked in shadow.
'Wait for the SOCOs,' she whispered.
The room closed around them. Gillis had a faraway look in his eyes. He dropped to his hands.
'Wait,' Mina said.
He was squeezing into the opening.
'And you were removed from the 1988 investigation?' Mina said, sharply.
Gillis backed out and glared up at her. Flecks of concrete and dirt were stuck to his back.
'I've had this shite coming for nearly three decades,' he breathed. 'I've a fair bit to make up for. Don't piss all over a bit of proactive - '
'Christ,' Mina hissed, kneeling down and shunting him aside. She aimed her torch into the dark aperture and blinked, squeezing her eyes open and shut. Gillis followed her as she crawled in.
The walls pressed tight. They inched their way over packed dirt. Their torches cut through each other and bound intermittently, a single phosphorus beacon within the inky void.
Gradually the space around them grew and they were able to stagger up into a dark passageway. There were wooden braces running along the packed earth walls, and above their heads. Openings carved into the walls. Hollowed-out cells: heavy wooden bars. Chicken-wire fencing. Buckets in the cell corners. Manky mattresses, rags and stained pillows on the floors.
Mina stepped forward and arced the torch up and down the shaft. The beam picked out endless rows of wooden braces. A sprawling subterranean passage.
'I can't... ' she breathed. 'It's remarkable, I... the amount of work... '
Gillis fanned his own torch along the wooden beams around them. Breath left his mouth as a thin vapour. His chest felt tight. The throwback was brutal. Time was a fallacy; he was stepping in and out of decades unhindered and in each one he was blind, scared and lost inside some kind of shadow realm.
He tried to bear each moment. Experience it in a new way. Feel the flow of the day. The beige corridors at Gayfield. The rolling Pentland Hills. The concrete room. Here. It was just a series of steps. One at a time.
Red markings were spray-painted onto the wooden beams. Strange murals. The definition was poor and muzzy in some places and the paint had run, dripped and blistered, but when he stepped back the symbols separated and became clear.
A rectangle above a crescent and a 'V'-rod.
A deer. A circle above the deer.
He felt a heavy weight within. He found himself recalling his mother. He remembered the last days; the pills, the incontinence, the outbursts. The past was so crisp and clear. He wondered how it was possible that time even passed. How he had found it within himself to abandon so much.
'I know this,' he said, and he felt as if he should have remembered it all differently. With resolution. Kindness. Love.
Mina's torch wavered beside him like a restless sprite. Every sound, every movement was amplified in the gloom.
'I remember reading about this one, way back,' he said, tracing a gloved finger over the deer symbol. 'The stag is no ordinary stag. It holds the sun in its antlers.'
Mina passed her beam over the braces, the mass of red graffiti. She stepped away from Gillis. Her light caught red daubings over every wooden beam, disappearing into the darkness ahead. Discs and whorls. Bows. Arches. Animals: serpents. Boars. A horse with a cross on its back.
'Celtic symbols,' she breathed. 'Pictish symbols? You've seen this before.'
Gillis's torch swung down to his side. His head dipped.
'It holds the sun in its antlers,' he whispered, and suddenly he felt terrified. His breath quickened and he turned and crunched past Mina, groping at the wooden braces.
'The SOCOs,' he said, flailing around. 'We have to set up a cordon... where was - which way was the? - '
'Gillis,' Mina breathed. His torch light dipped erratically and picked out red deer, eagles, a horse's head. Double-discs. Small straw men perched on the earth outside chicken-wire cells.
'Gillis, calm down. This is enough. It's time to go back.'
Her voice sounded like a distant thing within the confines of the tunnel, an ancient call thrown across generations. His mother's voice; a small child wearing a wooden deer mask, screaming. He heard his own heart pounding as if it was entombed within the walls of the underpass.
He lurched forward, rounded a corner, and there was an opening. A circular opening within the tunnel. The wooden braces lined the ceiling in a hexagonal web and he heard Mina clip after him. She seized his arm and he thought she was whispering it's alright, it's alright and then they saw the hole in the earthen floor.
His knees buckled as he walked towards the lip of the pit. Mina sunk down with him. In the soft torch light they saw a single, rusted metal pole embedded deep within the shaft and the two kneeling skeletons tied to it, their wrists bound together, skulls lowered, frozen in eternal veneration.