Mike Leary thinks it’s just a routine job when he’s called to investigate a spate of accidents at Colthorpe Pit. But he finds that miners are dying below ground, their corpses eyeless and mangled, and there are strange subterranean shiftings. The anger of underground spirits has been unleashed.
Published by Piatkus (1992) – Currently Out of Print
THE worm had been wriggling away inside him for months, years, feeding on bitter fruit, and now it had grown too big to contain. That was how Mike saw his anger, as an infestation which had been nuturing itself on his miserable life, building itself up from a faint temper to an uncontrollable rage ready to burst out at any moment. How had it grown so large, so fast? It would be the end of him, he was sure.
Hunched over the wheel, he peered blindly through the streaked windscreen, unable to control himself enough to slow down. The last corner had been the worst; he had actually felt the rear nearside wheel skid on the grass verge. If Hannah had been there she would have been screaming at him to slow down, to take it easy, but without her influence there was nothing to restrain that self-destructive urge.
Four hours ago he had been in his London office, quietly contemplating the journey home and a restful evening in front of the TV with his wife and son. Then Whicker had walked in with that familiar expression, that said, “Guess what? You’ve had it,” and Michael knew he’d soon be fighting off the churning in his stomach. And now here he was, a hundred and forty miles away, at night, in the middle of the worst storm he had known for years, en route to a place no one in their right mind would want to visit. He doubted it was even on the map.
His fist hammered on the resilient plastic of the steering wheel, once hard, three times soft, beating out the rhythm to some forgotten song. The rain was streaming down in sheets, corpulent drops that exploded on the glass. Visibility was down to ten yards and the darkness closed in on him on both sides, thick hedgerows and skeletal, thrashing trees obscuring any twinkling light that might have signified some life in the area. A rational person would have slowed to a crawl; Mike gunned the accelerator and watched the speedometer leap to sixty-five.
The turbo kicked in smoothly, propelling his car forward with another near-fateful skid, and then down a steep incline that curved sharply to the left at the bottom; he took it on the wrong side of the road. If anything had been coming in the other direction he would have been dead, but all reason was swamped beneath a seething hatred for his boss and his job.
Lightning crackled briefly on the horizon, throwing the rolling clouds into stark relief before the deep drum-roll of the thunder broke through the roar of the engine. Mike thought sourly of Whicker’s face, replete with smug grin. Sometimes he wanted to punch him. Just once. A solid right to the jaw. Lay him out over his desk and then everyone else in the office would applaud and cheer before Mike picked up his coat and walked out for good. The fantasy made him feel good for a moment, but then the old niggling thoughts came back: where had it all gone wrong? He used to love his job.
A village passed by so quickly it was just a sodium-orange blur, a handful of houses huddling together in the face of the storm. For a second he thought he had seen a patrol car parked in a lay-by, but then it was gone in a haze of spray and he was once more alone in the blank disquieting darkness of the countryside.
One man missing, the hastily-sent fax had said.
How could that be? Weren’t those hicks numerate? A whole night shift had been counted in as they went down the mine. A whole shift minus one had been counted back up. For five hours they had searched for him before the colliery manager had admitted defeat and set the wheels in motion that had ruined Mike’s weekend. Somehow they had managed to lose a miner along tunnels that were as regularly used as a city centre shopping precinct – an achievement so farcical that he at first thought Whicker was playing a typically nasty-minded trick on him. But then he had seen the file, the long list of accidents, injuries, sickness, that suggested this pit was one of a kind; the most incompetently, or criminally, run colliery in Britain.
“You’d better check it out,” Whicker had said, tossing the dog-eared file on to Mike’s desk.
“Can’t it wait till Monday, Richard? I promised Hannah–”
“No, it can’t wait till Monday!” Whicker had deliberately aimed to embarrass Mike in front of his colleagues. “It’s been on the agenda for months. Something’s got to be done and you’re the man to do it. Make some preliminary enquiries, and once we’ve got your recommendations we’ll decide if we’re going to send a full team up there.” He had smiled slyly. “Take your time. Let us know when you’ve got some results.”
Yeah, take your time, Mike. Stay up there as long as you want. Don’t come back – because we don’t need you here. Sackings cost money and it would be much better if you just quit, saved us all the trouble… Whicker didn’t need to put it into words.
Rounding the corner, Mike frantically stamped on the brakes, his reactions triggered by a sudden movement in his field of vision. The rear end of the car danced and weaved, threatening to flip off the greasy road in a potentially fatal pirouette, but it righted itself at the last second and came to a juddering halt. His heart pounding, Mike peered over the wheel, trying to see what had caught his eye.
All he could perceive was a strange motion in the watery arc of the headlights, an undulation, a ripple of darkness in the glare. He watched it with incomprehension, straining his eyes to draw any details out of the gloom. And then realisation dawned.
A thick, brown wave of them, pouring across the road like lemmings on a helter-skelter ride to oblivion. Big fat ones, skinny, wiry ones, packed so tightly they seemed one mass. He had never seen so many. Leaning over to one side to follow the flow, he saw their sinuous bodies scrambling out of a gaping hole at the side of the road; some of the hedge had collapsed into it. Mike could only surmise the torrential rain had washed away part of a sewer and the rats were fleeing to avoid the rising water level. And even that could not account for the vast numbers; there were hundreds of them, perhaps thousands, heading from the hole to the field across the road.
Grimly, he slipped the car into first and pressed the horn three times in the futile hope it would clear them out of his path. As the car crept forward, the pok-pok-pok of exploding bodies echoed above the rainfall.
The curious nature of the rats’ exodus had one reward: Whicker had been momentarily forgotten and Mike’s temper subsided enough for him to reach his destination without going above thirty.
The storm had not seemed a particular hardship along the M1 and even the A50, but there, on those quiet back lanes where he rarely encountered another vehicle, its full, primal force was evident. The wind channelled between the hedgerows in sudden violent gusts, tugging the car dangerously towards the verges, and in one hollow the road was so flooded he feared the water would splash up on to the spark plugs and bring the car to a halt.
Mike recognised the lights of the pit from five miles away. The white luminescence of the lofty lamps in the yard and the intermittent red of the warning bulbs that lined the drift’s enclosed conveyor belt were almost welcoming in the storm. Although the sky was an impenetrable black, the main body of the mine seemed somehow blacker against it, rising up high above the rolling fields. It slipped from view when Mike entered the bright lights of the village which clustered close by, and when it reappeared Mike had no time to pick out the details of the buildings before he was upon it, his headlamps briefly flaring on the coaldust-streaked sign: Colthorpe Colliery, British Coal, South Midlands Division. The main road bisected the site completely leaving a complex of buildings on either side linked by a small railway line. The red lights on the raised crossing barriers blinked pitifully through the rain.
Mike turned into the main entrance and carefully negotiated the speed bumps before bringing the car to a halt next to the largest office block. Further on, at the pit head, he could make out a frantic disturbance as people scurried around beneath hastily rigged-up emergency lights. For a few moments he sat watching them, listening to the unrelenting splatter of the rain and the intermittent howling of the wind; wishing he had another job, wishing he was at home with Hannah and Jack. Before there was time for his temper to rise again, he pulled on the mac he had hastily flung into the passenger seat and stepped out into the storm.
He had almost reached the surging crowd, his head bowed beneath a rapidly disintegrating newspaper, when a strident voice called out, “Oi! Where do you think you’re going?”
A short, fat man with a balding head and a thick, black moustache marched over, his face as thundery as the weather. A young policeman dogged his every step. “I said, where do you think you’re going?” he repeated in a voice spoiling for a fight.
“I’m probably coming to see you,” Mike replied coldly. “I’m Mike Leary, the–”
“Oh yes. Leary. They said you were coming,” the fat man said with a hint of bitterness. “Those bastards in London don’t trust us to sort out our own business.” Mike shurgged, refusing to be drawn. The fat man continued, “I’m Tom Bulmer. This is my pit.” He stuck out a stubby hand and wrung Mike’s until his knuckles hurt. It was a brief territorial warning.
“So what’s the state of play?” Mike asked turning his face away from the rain.
“He’s still missing. Been twelve hours now.”
“How?” Mike was unable to control his exasperation. “How could you lose someone?”
It was Bulmer’s turn to shrug. “Ay, well, that’s your problem now, isn’t it?” he replied with a faint sneer.
Mike looked towards the crowd. There were miners, faces still grimed with black dust that not even the rain would shift, a couple of ambulancemen and a handful of policemen, sheltering uncomfortably in plastic capes. To Mike, the miners seemed to have stepped from a period painting; the very structure of their faces belonged to another time. Their bones were hardier somehow, their cheeks ruddier, their eyes shrouded by heavy brows. Even their filthy overalls and dusty, scuffed boots looked like museum exhibits. Their gaze was fixed on the entrance to the lift building and the few that talked did so in concealed whispers. There was an expression on their faces that was not concern alone; it seemed to say, it could have been me, it could still be me. Fear: that was there too, though well-hidden. They knew as well as Mike that it would take an extraordinary state of affairs for a man to go missing underground.
A white-faced woman was sobbing hysterically, her cries plucked from her mouth by the howling wind so that she seemed to have stepped from a flickering, silent movie. Two miners attempted to comfort her, their movements awkward and embarrassed.
“Sorry I yelled at you back there.” Bulmer was at his elbow, watching the same scene. “I thought you were the press. We’ve had some reporters snooping around and I didn’t want any of this getting out.”
“Too right,” Mike said. “Bad publicity would only make it worse.”
“It’s not looking too good for us, is it, with…” – he carefully chose his words – “…with everything that’s happened in the past?”
“You haven’t got a particularly good track record, if that’s what you mean I haven’t had a chance to read the file properly. I’ll start on that tomorrow.”
“Go easy on us. We’ve got special problems up here.” Mike wanted to ask him what kind of “special problems”, but there was a sudden disturbance at the door of the lift building.
“They’ve found him!” someone yelled. “They’ve just radioed up!” The crowd surged forward with a jubilant cheer, the miners yelling and chattering with repressed relief.
“We better get in there,” Bulmer said hastily. “That’s still no guarantee he’ll be all in one piece.”
Bulmer barged his way through the crowd with Mike and the policeman close behind and when he made it through to the other side he turned and raised his hands. The men stopped in their tracks. “Go back now, lads. I know how you feel,” he said in a commanding basso voice that even rose above the wind, “but Alec might need some help.”
There was a general muttering and nodding of heads among the crowd and then they dropped back to allow an ambulance to come forward at Bulmer’s summons, its blue light flashing. Bulmer turned to Mike. “They’ll keep back now. Let’s get inside and have a look.”
When they stepped into the lift building, the faces of the two operators told them all they needed to know. “They reckon he’s dead,” one of them said darkly.
Bulmer shook his head. “Poor bastard.”
Mike got the impression it was only what Bulmer expected. “What happened?”
“They didn’t say. Just said he’d snuffed it.” The operator’s voice was a hoarse whisper and the noisy trundling of the lift mechanism almost drowned it out. Within seconds it had stopped, the cage of the lift clicking snugly into place, followed immediately by the sound of the men inside pulling the sliding doors back. There were five of them carrying a stretcher with a blanket over it. What struck Mike instantly were the men’s faces; they seemed uniformly drained of blood, their eyes glassy as if they had died and been brought back to life.
“Get him over here quickly,” Bulmer said with a note of panic in his voice.
The men laid the stretcher gently at his feet and then drew well back, shifting uncomfortably. “Jesus,” one of them muttered.
“What happened to him?” Bulmer asked. Mike could tell he did not want to pull the blanket back to see for himself.
The men were shaking their heads, refusing to speak. Mike leaned forward impatiently and tugged at the top of the blanket. The miners turned away as one and Bulmer clapped a chubby hand to his mouth, transfixed by what he saw. Mike fought back nausea.
The corpse had no eyes.
Black sockets stared insanely, rimmed with encrusted blood which also stained the cheeks like purple tears. Beneath those gaping holes the mouth was contorted into an expression of such abject horror that Mike shuddered involuntarily. The corpse appeared to be screaming for absolution, the blackened lips pulled back so far from the teeth that pink gums were revealed.