Phosphate Rocks, part 2: Kelly pointed to the unmistakable shape of a human head...

In the second of four extracts from Phosphate Rocks, by Fiona Erskine, a body is discovered.

Wednesday, 23rd June 2021, 4:55 am
The author of Phosphate Rocks, Fiona Erskine, in her younger SAI years
The author of Phosphate Rocks, Fiona Erskine, in her younger SAI years

Angry Pat responded to the radio call, stomping over the rubble, bellowing obscenities. The demolition crew foreman followed the new yodelling school of management. What started out as a quiet transaction in a warm office, a contract signed with just the scratch of a biro on smooth paper, was amplified over time into a series of increasingly

strident shouting matches.

Angry Pat was the last in the line of yodellers. Having received his instructions over mountains of obstacles, across gulleys of incomprehension, he passed them on by haranguing with ever-increasing ferocity and volume, berating men who valued their jobs too much to shout back.

Phosphate Rocks

Kelly ignored the tirade, as he ignored most of the invective that spewed from Angry Pat, and nodded at the ruined tower. Crumbs of concrete dangled on threads of steel reinforcement bars. The elevator, a tangle of buckets and chains, was listing to one side, the flimsy floor had been torn apart to reveal the machine room below. A metal ladder led down past a huge pulley wheel into a deep basement.

Directly underneath the wheel, a conical mound of powdered rock had formed, undisturbed for years, most likely, but now slowly collapsing, like a sandcastle at high tide. With a grimy finger, Kelly pointed to the unmistakable shape of a human head which had emerged from the settling pile.

‘Jesus Christ!’ Angry Pat backed away, eyes wide.

The job had a tight schedule. The old fertiliser factory on the docks had to be razed to the ground before the area could be redeveloped as a shopping and entertainment centre. It

was a fixed-price demolition contract and they were already over budget. Angry Pat hesitated, looking sideways at Kelly with an unspoken request. Kelly turned away and spat into

the sea.

The foreman’s shoulders slumped. ‘Virgin Mary’s bollocks.’

He phoned his boss before he called the police.

It took days to sift through the rubble. The police impounded the demolition equipment, machines too crude for delicate excavation. The crew were laid off; no other jobs would take lone men who were only as useful as the snippers and dozers and grapples they operated. Kelly remained on half wages to

hang around and guard the kit.

New machines arrived: tiny grabbers and sifters, with hoses and sniffer snouts, followed by men and women in white overalls with brushes and bags who took care not to disturb the body, hand-digging to preserve as much evidence as possible. Kelly made it a rule to stay well clear of the police, but the woman in uniform tracked him down to the store where he took naps between security shifts.

‘Detective Inspector Rose Irvine.’

She announced herself with a rap on the door of the windowless lock-up. ‘Can I have a word?’

He rubbed the sleep from his eyes and ran fingers through tousled hair, catching an unpleasant whiff of his own oxters. She waited for him to emerge and lock the door before she marched back to the crime scene. He stopped to take a leak behind one of the huge rubber tyres, zipped himself up and followed.

‘You the lad that found... this?’

She nodded towards the vault where a police photographer was fiddling with his camera.

‘Aye.’

He paused at the lip of the crater. A vacuum truck had sucked away the last of the powdered rock, and Kelly let out a gasp as he took in the scene below. Everything in the basement under the elevator pulley was encased by a thin shell of hardened phosphate rock, creating a macabre tableau. The human figure could be seen clearly now, seated on a chair, the body upright, hands resting on a rude desk, fingers splayed as if pointing to several objects on the flat surface. The head, the body, the furniture and the objects, perfectly preserved.

‘Tell me exactly what happened.’

‘I already told the polis...’

‘Tell me.’

He reappraised her. Not one to mess with, for all she looked like a wee clootie dumpling. But there was little enough to tell. He translated the technical terms of demolition into lassie-speak as best he could.

‘Looks almost staged,’ she said.

He shook his head. ‘Whoever it was, they lived there.’

‘How do you know?’

Kelly pointed to the braziers. On either side of the seated figure stood two perforated 50-gallon drums, the tops hacked off to leave jagged steel edges, multiple saucer-sized holes

punched through the sides. The sort of luxury item working men rely on for heat during winter jobs.

‘Who is it? How did this happen? Any ideas?’

Kelly shook his head. He had no clue, but he knew one person who might. A man who knew everything that ever went on in the old factory.

‘You’d best talk to John.’

Tomorrow: Chapter Two – John and the Ebony Elephant

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