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“Last Minute Callout”
(Don’t let your mind wander)
The drawback with being one of the most experienced maintenance technicians in the business is that whenever one of the more important tasks need doing, like it or not you are always on call. As the second most senior electrician on staff, Gary had come to know this sacrifice far too well. For despite the clock showing well after 6pm on a Friday evening – 1 hour over his regular shift – a last minute emergency callout saw him once more descending down into the deepest, darkest bowels of the city. Most of the premises he covered were constructed in recent years with all their pipes and wiring built into the structure for easy access, or at the very least had some kind of utility room in the basement. But then you have those really awkward places like the Lawson Building: Situated in one of the oldest parts of London, a throwback to a time before indoor plumbing, let alone electricity and internet cabling. So with limited space to work with, some of the buildings main utilities have had to be placed far below in parts of the old drainage system. This ancient network of underground pipes and tunnels sprawl out deep beneath the city like crooked tree roots and rest as equally unseen. Known mostly to those charged with working in them, along with city historians and maybe a few pub quiz afficionados who’d done a bit of research, these ageing structures date as far back as the late 1800’s. But thankfully some major upgrades have been made since that time. Shiny new security doors in and out of the work area are one of the first clear examples of recent modifications. All fitted with strong magnetic locks that need a registered key card to open. Reaching for his access card, Gary flustered when he found that it wasn’t clipped to the lanyard on his tool belt as first expected, but following a brief and slightly frantic pat down of his uniform, sighed a relief as his fingers snatched upon the card resting safely in his coat pocket. Most fortunate really, as it wouldn’t have been the first time Gary’s been forced to make the arduous journey back topside, returning to the truck only to find the thing had fallen into the foot well or slipped between the seats. But despite the occasional inconvenience it really did add a feeling of security knowing that people who shouldn’t be there are kept out. Although once you enter the main chamber you do have to ask yourself why even the most desperate of people would choose to hang around down here. For while they aren’t technically sewers, the thick odour that immediately chokes your nasal passageways alludes to a very passable impersonation. Intended for channelling overflow from the Thames and to help avoid flooding in the surrounding streets due to excessive rainfall, everything from human to industrial waste has ended up down here at some point. That’s why Gary and his colleagues wear so much protective equipment and submit to regular health checks as part of their contract. Not that Health and Safety was being followed to the letter mind, because if it were then Gary wouldn’t be down here all by himself to begin with, what with the whole “lone working regulations” and everything. It’s not good enough really as the company still hadn’t purchased the new remote safety devices they’d been promising for the last two years, even though he and his colleagues had been asking about them non-stop. A hi-tech personal alarm where if Gary were to suffer an accident while working alone in the underground, the emergency services would be alerted and immediately dispatched to his exact location using GPS co-ordinates provided by the device itself. Instead he had to settle for a very low-tech process where if he failed to check in by a set time then someone on duty would come to investigate. Not even close to being perfect, but Gary was just grateful that along with the improved security systems, brand new lighting had also been installed which meant he didn’t have to navigate solely by torchlight anymore. He still kept one on him though with as many extra batteries as he could comfortably carry. A rule he made after the last call-out involved a faulty transformer in the underground sending the lights all kinds of crazy! Now while they never actually went off, the bulbs were flickering so much that Gary came to realise that if they had of gone out then he would have been condemned to feeling his way around in the pitch blackness. A very dangerous situation to be in, and one where he would have most likely ended up in that river of god knows what flowing like a raging torrent in the huge gully cutting through the centre of the chamber; two parts water and a thousand parts nightmare! On a rainy day when that current really gets moving, anyone going in would likely never come out alive. The raised concrete walkways on either side have fixed barriers to help prevent that very situation from occurring, but Gary certainly had no intention of trusting his life to them.
Despite all these modern updates it’s still a real spook-fest working in these archaic subterranean structures that greet you with their distinctly gothic architecture of Victorian era London. Every low archway you pass through seems to lead you further and further into it’s long since forgotten world. Even in the fairly spacious main chamber the imposing design of the walls and ceilings embody such a strong presence that they actually feel as though they are closing in on you, which means anyone working alone down here for any length of time ends up battling a claustrophobic tension. Further more the slightest little sound will echo around the place long after it’s made, reflecting back from all angles as if to emulate some sort of cavernous expanse, stoking a genuine sense of anxious isolation. There may well be an entire city bustling overhead, all alive and full of people busy about their daily activities, but solo missions down here made it feel a million miles away. That’s why no one liked doing the Lawson contract! For Gary the one thing that bothered him the most was that everything’s covered in this weird gelatinous slime of unknown origin. A clear viscous gel – presumed to be some kind of fungus or mould – that glistens upon the walls, the rusted fixtures and even the masonry right above your head. Just one touch of this cold and gluey mucus with your bare hands made every inch of your skin crawl straight across the room… Gross! So with all of these physical and psychological influences taking their toll on you both consciously and sub-consciously, Gary always tried to keep things light. Easing the tension by joking with himself, saying that a horror writer could take a lifetime of inspiration from a place like this. In fact he’d even started to write his own scary novel but hadn’t got very far. Good humour aside, Gary found it best not to dwell too heavily upon what may or may not be hiding in the shadows. For always ready to spike those icy chills creeping up and down your spine were the old access tunnels: Narrow passageways cut directly into the walls that burrow out into unused sections of the drainage network. The majority have remained completely untouched for close to a century, with the select few recently explored deemed dangerously unsafe due to their extremely poor condition. There are a number of these abandoned tunnels on route to the Lawson Building’s utility zone and even though he found them really quite ominous, Gary just couldn’t help but peer inside as he passed. With no lighting fitted whatsoever they contain nothing but an eternal darkness that consumes anything or anyone foolish enough to enter. By contrast the strong white LED lights shining brightly upon the new concrete floors of the main chamber made each of these openings appear as a doorway into an empty void! When you stop and listen carefully, among the dank drips and drops, faint knocking and unsettling scratching sounds drift out from somewhere inside… The mind in it’s attempts to rationalise what it hears will tell you that it’s just rats. But always there in your imagination, a murder of ghosts and ghouls are soon to manifest with their lifeless eyes staring out at you from that ink like gloom. Thoughts that play on your mind all the more when you’ve been told that dead bodies have been found mere metres from where you are standing. Gary had never seen anything personally, but last year his colleague Geoff – the most senior electrician on staff – was given the job of running a quality check on the new magnetic door locks. Less than half an hour into the task he had to call the Police when the mutilated remains of a woman were discovered floating face down in the water. Gary had known Geoff for close to 8 years, he was a former army engineer and had seen combat first hand but even he said it was one of the worst things he’d ever seen. “Catastrophic injuries” were his exact words, as though she had gone head first into a thresher! More shockingly was that despite a lengthy investigation the Police were unable to reach a solid conclusion as to the events that led to this woman’s death… Not that the Press cared of course! Eagre as always to keep the drama going the city newspapers cast common decency aside and interpreted the official police report, saying that the woman was most probably a homeless person who had fallen into the drainage system before being dragged into one of the larger mechanisms that manage water flow. Shameless speculation? Yes! But then again, not entirely implausible either. Homelessness is a very real and growing crisis in the city it’s sad to say, plus there are indeed a few industrial sized turbines in the system capable of causing severe injury if you ever did manage to get drawn into one of them. But all that being said, after the company reviewed both their security and safety systems, the manner in which this poor lady found her way into the underground drainage network remained a complete mystery. Still to this day no one has come forward to identify or claim the body and so it’s quite possible that we may never know who she was, where she came from or what happened to her. Due to the increased curiosity this unsolved case was stirring up on Social Media, a few independent media outlets – those who fall within the specific category of “entertainment value” – were quick to cash in by starting up rumours of some kind of supernatural serial killer or demonic creature lurking somewhere in the London underground, snatching up the unwary and stealing them away into their secret lair to perform some truly unspeakable acts upon them. Ashamed to admit that he’d read more than a few of these sensationalist clickbait articles, Gary had come to see how when you are safely above ground such fanciful urban myths can seem truly laughable and absurd. But once you actually get down into the underground and find yourself walking through dark and narrow maintenance tunnels, all of a sudden every shadow seen out the corner of your eye seems to make you jump. Because as one random user posted in response to those seeking to debunk claims of the paranormal: “While no one has successfully proved that supernatural forces were responsible for what happened, no one has actually proved that they weren’t either.” A nitpicking statement at best, yet one that has practically embedded itself in Gary’s mind. For he has always held a belief that all things are possible until proven otherwise, and so in many ways you do have to wonder just what the hell could be running around down here that we don’t know about!… But anyway, enough of that kind of thinking. Best to stick firmly to the golden rule: Get in, get on and get out!
As it was there weren’t many electrical boxes situated in the main chamber and so finding the culprit was a relatively simple process. The paperwork said that a sensor in Junction Box 3 was detecting an error causing the complete loss of ground floor lighting in the premises above. Personal experience is the most effective teacher and so after having one of these things blow up in his face on six separate occasions, Gary put on his protective glasses and cautiously unlocked the door. Before reaching even a quarter of the way open there was a jolting crack and a blinding flash that sent him reeling backwards!.. Affording himself a moment to steady his heart and clear the floating white spots from his overpowered vision, Gary sighed with frustration, mentally racking up that tally to seven. He pulled the main power switch to render the box safe and a quick tap of the contacts with a circuit tester – just to be sure -lifted the appropriate tool from his belt and set to work. Gary was surprised that these boxes were still breaking down. Three years ago the rival company contracted to install them were placed under fierce scrutiny by the authorities after one exploded in a similar fashion. Only this one started a massive fire that engulfed an entire apartment block in minutes. Miraculously no one was killed, but when they checked the other electrical facilities in and around the site they discovered that they too failed to meet the required safety standard. By the end of the hearing all 12 buildings that the offending company were responsible for had electrical systems failing one after the other with every safety test performed. Next thing you know there’s news of electricians lacking necessary experience and company heads accused of incompetence and even fraud. Long story short, the whole company was dissolved and people like Gary had to go around cleaning up their mess. Although to be fair this particular unit had been installed correctly, but many of the internal parts were clearly sub-standard and beginning to fail; guess those fraud charges held some credibility after all… While busy replacing the burnt out components, Gary became suddenly anxious at the thought of being in such close proximity to something creating electrical discharge in a confined space where methane gas was known to build up! The air quality sensor on his wrist wasn’t revealing any increased levels of hazardous gas, but it didn’t do much to bolster his confidence. This thing once failed to detect a dangerous carbon monoxide buildup during work in an old silage tank. It wasn’t until Gary and his team were on the verge of passing out that they knew something was wrong. Fortunately they still had enough time to get themselves to safety. The company was quick to assure them that the software had been vastly improved since then, but again it’s a minor reassurance for those who were involved. So with one last turn of the fixing screw, Gary was now ready to risk blowing himself to kingdom come for a second time. Breath held tight, grimacing with apprehension he tentatively raised the power switch… But thank the merciful heavens, a green light shining brightly on the casing signalled another job well done; looks like Gary would live to see another dodgy electrical installation yet. As he closed the thin metal door of the electrical box a sharp sound pierced through the air, snatching his full attention! It was distant, slightly obscured by the squeaking of the dry hinges, but definitely something. What the hell was that? Did he just hear a woman screaming!.. Gary stood motionless, scouring his territory like a dutiful watchdog. His eyes dug deep into his surroundings in search of anything that seemed out of place. But after a few minutes had passed and no similar sounds occurred he gradually eased off the trigger. Swimming in his head were a thousand different thoughts all hurrying to explain what he thought he’d heard. It could have been anything really, not necessarily a scream. Perhaps the machinery in a neighbouring chamber is starting to signal it’s age with the squealing of a worn or corroded bearing? Maybe a poor old rat got itself nabbed by a stray cat? But even if it was a scream then maybe it drifted down from street level? Gary may be far beneath the surface but the city’s drains all lead down here through pipes notorious for carrying sounds. Something he could personally vouch for after he and Geoff once managed to communicate solely through the use of a broken pipe while working in separate parts of the underground. The two of them were at least 40 metres apart yet their voices could be heard as clear as if they were standing in the same room. Gary checked his watch to see that it was now half past seven on a Friday evening, right when the raucous masses were starting to venture out to enjoy the nightlife and so suddenly everything made an acceptable sense. Not the full reassuring sense that Gary would have liked mind you, but for sanity’s sake he chose to let it drop before he got himself too tied up in knots over it. Besides, Lisa had asked her new boss round for dinner tonight at eight thirty, so he’d really better get a move on.
Making his way back along the damp walkway with the musty stench of that accursed river of toxins setting up for round two in his nostrils, Gary couldn’t shake the troubling thoughts still lurking in his consciousness. Silly doubts and worries that seemed rebelliously intent on mulling over that weird scream he’d heard just minutes earlier. Because the truth is that the more Gary recalled the details in memory the more apparent it was that this sound originated from inside one of the old access tunnels. A chilling contemplation that was quite honestly starting to freak him out!.. It was amidst that momentary surge of panic when Gary heard a second set of footsteps coming from somewhere behind him. They were slightly offset in rhythm to his own and so couldn’t help but catch his ear. Initially resigned to ignoring it, Gary decided that it was merely his own footsteps reflecting off the walls as he walked through the chamber creating a delayed echo. But regardless of fair logical reasoning, a primal need to restore calm was rising within his psyche and so eventually, with reluctant submission to his natural instincts, Gary stuttered to a stop before cautiously looking back over his shoulder… Much to his relief nothing was there. The footsteps had ceased altogether and only his own muddy boot prints were imprinted on the concrete floor he’d just walked across. So with an alleviated sigh, Gary resumed his passage back toward the main exit. However, after a few seconds those strange, eerie footsteps began again and Gary was now starting to feel extremely uneasy, with the hairs on the back of his neck rising up to match his growing concern. Fear can be a bizarre contradiction at times, often caused by things unknown and yet the same unknowing can sometimes help sedate us. The childlike belief of: “If I don’t see it, then it is isn’t real!” kind of takes over. Of course the longer this unnerving scenario continued on for the more Gary’s chosen beliefs would start to fail him, as second by second, step by step, he could feel his heart rate climbing while the anxiety built up inside his body. Refusing to embarrass himself for a second time, Gary just carried on marching ahead, assuring himself that everything would be perfectly fine. But all the while his ears gripped with both hands to those errant steps. They seemed much more pronounced this time and distinctly lighter in their tone, such as when the soles of a firm pair of shoes make that hollow clopping sound every time the wearer steps upon a stone floor. One could almost describe them as “dainty” compared to the dull thud of Gary’s heavy work boots with their thick rubber soles. But they did appear to be moving with a deliberate and persistent gait. With the characteristics between these two sets of footsteps continuing to diverge it was making things increasingly difficult to explain away with simple arguments. So without giving away a single warning or gesture, Gary took a large misstep to deliberately break his walking rhythm, to see if it would echo back as he believed it would. Only it didn’t! The other set of footsteps remained completely unchanged. Slow, steady and forever constant.. Feeling himself reaching the point where you’re either going to run for your life or start swinging fists, Gary stopped dead in his tracks and spun around on the spot, determined to prove to himself once and for all that he was being completely ridiculous… Again, just the same as before not one person could be seen anywhere within the chamber and the footsteps had all fallen silent. But while at first there seemed nothing amiss, back along the walkway a second set of shoe prints had now mysteriously appeared right alongside his own in the grime covered concrete floor. It looked as though someone with small feet – such as a child or maybe a woman – had been following close behind. Gary’s stressed heart leapt straight into his mouth and a hot sweat flashed over his entire body. What the hell was this? Was someone else down here? His eyes were darting around the place like mosquitos in the shimmering heat, when out of the stillness, right where those shoe prints ended that same terrifying scream exploded with force! The sheer ferocity and closeness of that disembodied wail immediately spurred Gary’s ancestral flight instinct and he found himself running before even knowing what had actually happened. This was definitely something he couldn’t ever hope to explain and to be perfectly honest he wasn’t even trying. All Gary could seem capable of thinking about right now was getting the hell out of there!
He ran frantically through the chamber as those horrifying screams continued on relentlessly. A flurry of blood chilling shrieks and howls that could be easily likened to those of a crazed lunatic marauding through an asylum! Turning the corner at speed, Gary locked eyes on the way out and sprinted for the finish. Behind him the unseen menace was clearly gaining ground, with the frightening clamour growing in intensity. On his approach to the door, Gary reached for the emergency release button but his hand touched unexpectedly upon yet another card reader. What the hell! When did this get installed, and why? He’d never needed a key card to get out of the chamber before. Surely you’re trying to keep trespassers out, not in?.. With no time to be wasted on confusion, Gary quickly yanked the lanyard from his tool-belt and was promptly met by the dread inducing sight of the keycard once more missing from the clip! A fearful gasp fled his mouth and he glanced back along the walkway… Had he dropped it somewhere?.. Faced with no way out, Gary could only stand there and listen on helplessly as that grotesque and ghostly screaming became louder and louder. He didn’t need to see anything to know something truly terrible was heading his way, with the sound of hastened footsteps drawing forever closer. Trapped in the gravest of danger and with every shred of cognitive reasoning suppressed due to such an unprecedented moment of terror, hysteria was now threatening to overrun Gary’s mind. But then, just as all felt lost, from out of that unabashed chaos whirling in his head a rescuing memory stabbed sharply inside his eyes. In that exact moment, hope rebounded in Gary’s heart as he immediately sank his hand straight in his coat pocket and triumphantly pulled out the keycard. He slapped the thing so hard against the card reader that it almost cracked the plastic casing and the mechanism reacted with a shrill beep, releasing the magnetic lock. The door sprung open and without taking any time to open it up any further, practically getting in his own way, Gary clumsily and eventually squeezed through that partial opening before pulling the door shut behind him with a firm bang! The magnetic lock re-engaged, securing the door with a solid clunk and within less than a second the entire thing began to shake and rattle as if something immensely strong was battering furiously upon the metal. This was 2 inch thick, reinforced steel but felt as though it could collapse at any given moment. Gary pressed himself back against the opposing wall in abject terror, covering his ears tightly as that hideous, banshee like screaming continued to bawl and holler from inside the chamber. He could physically feel the deafening thumps and bashes on the door from a good two metres away as they boomed loudly throughout the main tunnel. It’s hard to tell exactly how long this disturbing fracas lasted for, but after what must have been whole minutes, just as bizarrely as it had all started everything suddenly fell to haunting silence…
At first Gary was too afraid to move and remained curled up against the wall for safety. But as the seconds continued to tick by and the lasting stillness began to sting harshly upon his heightened senses, the motivation to open his eyes finally emerged. As his vision settled into focus Gary could see that the security door had stopped shaking and was still firmly in place upon it’s hinges. Just about detectable in the background could be heard the low-frequency hum of the ventilation system, but it was being drowned out by the the sound of his own heartbeat pounding like a bass drum in his ears as the adrenaline shook his body into an uncoordinated dance. Everything just felt so unreal! As if reality itself was in question! Was he going mad? Did an overactive imagination simply dream it all up, or did something really just try to attack him in that chamber? Personally Gary wasn’t prepared to sit and ponder it any longer and jumped straight to his feet, running non stop and as fast as he could back along the main entryway until he reached the service hatch leading topside. Without even a second to catch his breath, Gary climbed that ladder like a professional mountaineer on a time trial, multiple rungs at a time! During the frantic ascent, Gary had already made the decision that the instant he gets home he would ask Julie’s new Boss if she had any new vacancies going at her workplace. Even if it was just sweeping the floors because one thing was for damn sure, he was never coming back down here again!
© Westley Nash (2019)
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