Darkness was falling as Rebus accepted the yellow hard hat from his guide.
'This will be the admin block, we think,' the man said. His name was David Gilfillan. He worked for Historic Scotland and was coordinating the archaeological survey of Queensberry House. 'The original building is late seventeenth century. Lord Hatton was its original owner. It was extended at the end of the century, after coming into the ownership of the first Duke of Queensberry. It would have been one of the grandest houses on Canongate, and only a stone's throw from Holyrood.'
All around them, demolition work was taking place. Queensberry House itself would be saved, but the more recent additions either side of it were going. Workmen crouched on roofs, removing slates, tying them into bundles which were lowered by rope to waiting skips. There were enough broken slates underfoot to show that the process was imperfect. Rebus adjusted his hard hat and tried to look interested in what Gilfillan was saying.
Everyone told him that this was a sign, that he was here because the chiefs at the Big House had plans for him. But Rebus knew better. He knew his boss, Detective Chief Superintendent 'Farmer' Watson, had put his name forward because he was hoping to keep Rebus out of trouble and out of his hair. It was as simple as that. And if - if - Rebus accepted without complaining and saw the assignment through, then maybe - maybe - the Farmer would receive a chastened Rebus back into the fold.
Four o'clock on a December afternoon in Edinburgh; John Rebus with his hands in his raincoat pockets, water seeping up through the leather soles of his shoes. Gilfilan was wearing green wellies. Rebus noticed that DI Derek Linford was wearing an almost identical pair. He'd probably phoned beforehand, checked with the archaeologist what the season's fashion was. Linford was Fettes faststream, headed for big things at Lothian and Borders Police HQ. Late twenties, practically deskbound, and glowing from a love of the job. Already there were CID officers - mostly older than him - who were saying it didn't do to get on the wrong side of Derek Linford. Maybe he'd have a long memory; maybe one day he'd be looking down on them all from Room 279 of the Big House.
The Big House: Police HQ on Fettes Avenue; 279: the Chief Constable's Office.
Linford had his notebook out, pen clenched between his teeth. He was listening to the lecture. He was listening.
'Forty noblemen, seven judges, generals, doctors, bankers…' Gilfillan was letting his tour group know how important Canongate had been at one time in the city's history. In doing so, he was pointing towards the near future. The brewery next door to Queensferry House was due for demolition the following spring. The parliament itself would be built on the cleared site, directly across the road from Holyrood House, the Queen's Edinburgh residence. On the other side of Holyrood Road, facing Queensberry House, work was progressing on Dynamic Earth, a natural history theme park. Next to it, a new HQ for the city's daily newspaper was at present a giant monkey-puzzle of steel girders. And across the road from that, another site was being cleared in preparation for the construction of a hotel and 'prestige apartment block'. Rebus was standing in the midst of one of the biggest building sites in Edinburgh's history.
'You'll probably all know Queensberry House as a hospital.' Gilfillan was saying. Derek Linford was nodding, but then he nodded agreement with almost everything the archaeologist said. 'Where we're standing now was used for car parking.' Rebus looked around at the mud-coloured lorries, each one bearing the simple word DEMOLITION. 'But before it was a hospital it was used as a barracks. This area was the parade ground. We dug down and found evidence of a formal sunken garden. It was probably filled in to make the parade ground.'
In what light was left, Rebus looked at Queensberry House. Its grey harled walls looked unloved. There was grass growing from its gutters. It was huge, yet he couldn't remember having seen it before, though he'd driven past it probably several hundred times in his life.
'My wife used to work here,' another of the group said, 'when it was a hospital.' The informant was Sergeant Joseph Dickie, who was based at Gayfield Square. He'd successfully contrived to miss two out of the first four meetings of the PPLC - the Policing of Parliament Liaison Committee. By some arcane law of bureaucratic semantics, the PPLC was actually a subcommittee, one of many which had been set up to advise on security matters pertaining to the Scottish Parliament. There were eight members of the PPLC, including one Scottish Office official and a shadowy figure who claimed to be from Scotland Yard, though when Rebus had phoned the Met in London, he'd been unable to trace him. Rebus's bet was that the man - Alec Carmodie - was MI5. Carmodie wasn't here today, and neither was Peter Brent, the sharp-faced and sharper-suited Scottish Office representative. Brent, for his sins, sat on several of the subcommittees, and had begged off today's tour with the compelling excuse that he'd been through it twice before when accompanying visiting dignitaries.
Making up the party today were the three final members of the PPLC. DS Ellen Wylie was from C Division HQ in Torpichen Place. It didn't seem to bother her that she was the only woman on the team. She treated it like any other task, raising good points at the meetings and asking questions to which no one seemed to have any answers.
DC Grant Hood was from Rebus's own station, St Leonard's. Two of them, because St Leonard's was the closest station to the Holyrood site, and the parliament would be part of their beat. Though Rebus worked in the same office as Hood, he didn't know him well. They'd not often shared the same shift. But Rebus did know the last member of the PPLC, DI Bobby Hogan from D Division in Leith. At the first meeting, Hogan had pulled Rebus to one side.
'What the hell are we doing here?'
'I'm serving time,' Rebus had answered. 'What about you?'
Hogan was scoping out the room. 'Christ, man, look at them. We're Old Testament by comparison.'
Smiling now at the memory, Rebus caught Hogan's eye and winked. Hogan shook his head almost imperceptibly. Rebus knew what he was thinking: waste of time. Almost everything was a waste of time for Bobby Hogan.
'If you'll follow me,' Gilfallan was saying, 'we can take a look indoors.'
Which, to Rebus's mind, really was a waste of time. The committee having been set up, things had to be found for them to do. So here they were wandering through the dank interior of Queensberry House, their way lit irregularly by unsafe-looking strip lights and the torch carried by Gilfallan. As they climbed the stairwell - nobody wanted to use the lift - Rebus found himself paired with Joe Dickie, who asked a question he'd asked before.
'Put in your exes yet?' By which he meant the claim for expenses.
'No,' Rebus admitted.
'Sooner you do, sooner they'll cough up.'
Dickie seemed to spend half his time at their meetings totting up figures on his pad of paper. Rebus had never seen the man write down anything as mundane as a word or sentence. Dickie was late thirties, big-framed with a head like an artillery shell stood on end. His black hair was cropped close to the skull and his eyes were as small and rounded as a china doll's. Rebus had tried the comparison out on Bobby Hogan, who'd commented that any doll resembling Joe Dickie would 'give a bairn nightmares.'
'I'm a grown-up,' Hogan had continued, 'and he still scares me.'
Climbing the stairs, Rebus smiled again. Yes, he was glad to have Bobby Hogan around.
'When people think of archaeology,' Gilfillan was saying, 'they almost always see it in terms of digging down, but one of our most exciting finds here was in the attic. A new roof was built over the original one, and there are traces of what looks like a tower. We'd have to climb a ladder to get to it, but if anyone's interested...?'
'Thank you,' a voice said. Derek Linford: Rebus knew its nasal quality only too well by now.
'Creep,' another voice close to Rebus whispered. It was Bobby Hogan, bringing up the rear. A head turned: Ellen Wylie. She'd heard, and now gave what looked like the hint of a smile. Rebus looked to Hogan, who shrugged, letting him know he thought Wylie was all right.
'How will Queensberry House be linked to the parliament building? Will there be covered walkways?' The questions came from Linford again. He was out in front with Gilfillan. The pair of them had rounded a corner of the stairs, so that Rebus had to strain to hear Gilfillan's hesitant reply.
'I don't know.'
His tone said it all: he was an archaeologist, not an architect. He was here to investigate the site's past rather than its future. He wasn't sure himself why he was giving this tour, except that it had been asked of him. Hogan screwed up his face, letting everyone in the vicinity know his own feelings.
'When will the building be ready?' Grant Hood asked. An easy one: they'd all been briefed. Rebus saw what Hood was doing - trying to console Gilfillan by putting a question he could answer.
'Construction begins in the summer,' Gilfillan obliged. 'Everything should be up and running here by the autumn of 2001.' They were coming out on to a landing. Around them stood open doorways, through which could be glimpsed the old hospital wards. Walls had been gouged at, flooring removed: checks on the fabric of the building. Rebus stared out of a window. Most of the workers looked to be packing up: dangerously dark now to be scrabbling over roofs. There was a summerhouse down there. It was due to be demolished, too. And a tree, drooping forlornly, surrounded by rubble. It had been planted by the Queen. No way it could be moved or felled until she'd given her permission. According to Gilfillan, permission had now been granted; the tree would go. Maybe formal gardens would be recreated down there, or maybe it would be a staff car park. Nobody knew. 2001 seemed a ways off. Until this site was ready, the parliament would sit in the Church of Scotland Assembly Hall near the top of The Mound. The committee had already been on two tours of the Assembly Hall and its immediate vicinity. Office buildings were being turned over to the parliament, so that the MSPs could have somewhere to work. Bobby Hogan had asked at one meeting why they couldn't just wait for the Holyrood site to be ready before, in his words, 'setting up shop'. Peter Brent, the civil servant, had stared at him aghast.
'Because Scotland needs a parliament now.'
'Funny, we've done without for three hundred years…'
Brent had been about to object, but Rebus had butted in. 'Bobby, at least they're not trying to rush the job.'
Hogan had smiled, knowing he was talking about the newly opened Museum of Scotland. The Queen had come north for the official opening of the unfinished building. They'd had to hide the scaffolding and paint tins till she'd gone.
Gilfillan was standing beside a retractable ladder, pointing upwards towards a hatch in the ceiling.
'The original roof is just up there,' he said. Derek Linford already had both feet on the ladder's bottom rung. 'You don't need to go all the way,' Gilfillan continued as Linford climbed. 'If I shine the torch up…'
But Linford had disappeared into the roof space.
'Lock the hatch and let's make a run for it,' Bobby Hogan said, smiling so they'd assume he was joking.
Ellen Wylie hunched her shoulders. 'There's a real ... atmosphere in here, isn't there?'
'My wife saw a ghost,' Joe Dickie said. 'Lots of people who worked here did. A woman, she was crying. Used to sit on the end of one of the beds.'
'Maybe she was a patient who died here,' Grant Hood offered.
Gilfillan turned towards them. 'I've heard that story, too. She was the mother of one of the servants. Her son was working here the night the Act of Union was signed. Poor chap got himself murdered.'
Linford called down that he thought he could see where the steps to the tower had been, but nobody was listening.
'Murdered?' Ellen Wylie said.
Gilfillan nodded. His torch threw weird shadows across the walls, illuminating the slow movements of cobwebs. Linford was trying to read some graffiti on the wall.
'There's a year written here . . . 1870, I think.'
'You know Queensberry was the architect of the Act of Union?' Gilfillan was saying. He could see that he had an audience now, for the first time since the tour had begun in the brewery car park next door. 'Back in 1707. This,' he scratched a shoe over the bare floorboards, 'is where Great Britain was invented. And the night of the signing, one of the young servants was working in the kitchen. The Duke of Queensberry was Secretary of State. It was his job to lead the negotiations. But he had a son, James Douglas, Earl of Drumlanrig. The story goes, James was off his head...'
Gilfillan looked up through the open hatch. 'All right up there?' he called.
'Fine. Anyone else want to take a look?'
They ignored him. Ellen Wylie repeated her question.
'He ran the servant through with a sword,' Gilfillan said, 'then roasted him in one of the kitchen fireplaces. James was sitting munching away when he was found.'
'Dear God,' Ellen Wylie said.
'You believe this?' Bobby Hogan slid his hands into his pockets.
Gilfillan shrugged. 'It's a matter of record.'
A blast of cold air seemed to rush at them from the roof space. Then a rubber-soled Wellington appeared on the ladder, and Derek Linford began his slow, dusty descent. At the bottom, he removed the pen from between his teeth.
'Interesting up there,' he said. 'You really should try it. Could be your first and last chance.'
'Why's that then?' Bobby Hogan asked.
'I very much doubt we'll be letting tourists in here, Bobby,' Linford said. 'Imagine what that would do for security.'
Hogan stepped forward so swiftly that Linford flinched. But all Hogan did was lift a cobweb from the young man's shoulder.
'Can't have you heading back to the Big House in less than showroom condition, can we, son?' Hogan said. Linford ignored him, probably feeling that he could well afford to ignore relics like Bobby Hogan, just as Hogan knew he had nothing to fear from Linford: he'd be heading for retirement long before the younger man gained any position of real power and prominence.
'I can't see it as the powerhouse of government,' Ellen Wylie said, examining the water stains on the walls, the flaking plaster. 'Wouldn't they have been better off knocking it down and starting again?'
'It's a listed building,' Gilfillan censured her. Wylie just shrugged. Rebus knew that nevertheless she had accomplished her objective, by deflecting attention away from Linford and Hogan. Gilfillan was off again, delving into the history of the area: the series of wells which had been found beneath the brewery; the slaughterhouse which used to stand nearby. As they headed back down the stairs, Hogan held back, tapping his watch, then cupping a hand to his mouth. Rebus nodded: good idea. A drink afterwards. Jenny Ha's was a short stroll away, or there was the Holyrood Tavern on the way back to St Leonard's. As if mind-reading, Gilfillan began talking about the Younger's Brewery.
'Covered twenty-seven acres at one time, produced a quarter of all the beer in Scotland. Mind you, there's been an abbey at Holyrood since early in the twelfth century. Chances are they weren't just drinking well-water.'
Through a landing window, Rebus could see that outside night had fallen prematurely. Scotland in winter: it was dark when you came to work, and dark when you went home again. Well, they'd had their little outing, gleaned nothing from it, and would now be released back to their various stations until the next meeting. It felt like a penance because Rebus's boss had planned it as such. Farmer Watson was on a committee himself: Strategies for Policing in the New Scotland. Everyone called it SPINS. Committee upon committee . . . it felt to Rebus as if they were building a paper tower, enough 'Policy Agendas', 'Reports' and 'Occasional Papers' to completely fill Queensberry House. And the more they talked, the more that got written, the further away from reality they seemed to move. Queensberry House was unreal to him, the idea of a parliament itself the dream of some mad god: 'But Edinburgh is a mad god's dream/Fitful and dark...' He'd found the words at the opening to a book about the city. They were from a poem by Hugh MacDiarmid. The book itself had been part of his recent education, trying to understand this home of his.
He took off his hard hat, rubbed his fingers through his hair, wondering just how much protection the yellow plastic would give against a projectile falling several storeys. Gilfillan asked him to put the hat back on until they were back at the site office.
'You might not get into trouble,' the archaeologist said, 'but I would.'
Rebus put the helmet back on, while Hogan tutted and wagged a finger. They were back at ground level, in what Rebus guessed must have been the hospital's reception area. There wasn't much to it. Spools of electric cable sat near the door: the offices would need rewiring. They were going to close the Holyrood/St Mary's junction to facilitate underground cabling. Rebus, who used the route often, wasn't looking forward to the diversions. Too often these days the city seemed nothing but roadworks.
'Well,' Gilfillan was saying, opening his arms, 'that's about it. If there are any questions, I'll do what I can.'
Bobby Hogan coughed into the silence. Rebus saw it as a warning to Linford. When someone had come up from London to address the group on security issues in the Houses of Parliament, Linford had asked so many questions the poor sod had missed his train south. Hogan knew this because he'd been the one who'd driven the Londoner at breakneck speed back to Waverley Station, then had had to entertain him for the rest of the evening before depositing him on the overnight sleeper.
Linford consulted his notebook, six pairs of eyes drilling into him, fingers touching wristwatches.
'Well, in that case,' Gilfillan began.
'Hey! Mr Gilfillan! Are you up there?' The voice was coming from below. Gilfillan walked over to a doorway, called down a flight of steps.
'What is it, Marlene?'
'Come take a look.'
Gilfillan turned to look at his reluctant group. 'Shall we?' He was already heading down. They couldn't very well leave without him. It was stay here, with a bare lightbulb for company, or head down into the basement. Derek Linford led the way.
They came out into a narrow hallway, rooms off to both sides, and other rooms seeming to lead from those. Rebus thought he caught a glimpse of an electrical generator somewhere in the gloom. Voices up ahead and the shadowplay of torches. They walked out of the hallway and into a room lit by a single arc lamp. It was pointing towards a long wall, the bottom half of which had been lined with wooden tongue-and-groove painted the selfsame institutional cream as the plaster walls. Floorboards had been ripped up so that for the most part they were walking on the exposed joists, beneath which sat bare earth. The whole room smelt of damp and mould. Gilfillan and the other archaeologist, the one he'd called Marlene, were crouched in front of this wall, examining the stonework beneath the wood panelling. Two long curves of hewn stone, forming what seemed to Rebus like railway arches in miniature. Gilfillan turned round, looking excited for the first time that day.
'Fireplaces,' he said. 'Two of them. This must have been the kitchen.' He stood up, taking a couple of paces back. 'The floor level's been raised at some point. We're only seeing the top half of them.' He half-turned towards the group, reluctant to take his eyes off the discovery. 'Wonder which one the servant was roasted in...'
One of the fireplaces was open, the other closed off by a couple of sections of brown corroding metal.
'What an extraordinary find,' Gilfillan said, beaming at his young co-worker. She grinned back at him. It was nice to see people so happy in their work. Digging up the past, uncovering secrets . . . it struck Rebus that they weren't so unlike detectives.
'Any chance of rustling us up a meal then?' Bobby Hogan said, producing a snort of laughter from Ellen Wylie. But Gilfillan wasn't paying any heed. He was standing by the closed fireplace, prying with his fingertips at the space between stonework and metal. The sheet came away easily, Marlene helping him to lift it off and place it carefully on the floor.
'Wonder when they blocked it off?' Grant Hood asked.
Hogan tapped the metal sheet. 'Doesn't look exactly prehistoric.' Gilfillan and Marlene had lifted away the second sheet. Now everyone was staring at the revealed fireplace. Gilfillan thrust his torch towards it, though the arc lamp gave light enough.
There could be no mistaking the desiccated corpse for anything other than what it was.
Set in Darkness is available now in paperback priced £5.99 or on audio priced £12.99, read by James MacPherson
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