Chapter 1


Wednesday 2nd November


   Sergeant James Munro stretched long and hard, the urge to yawn had been nibbling at him for some time and he finally gave in and let it run free. He rubbed the bridge of his nose and slipped his glasses back in their rightful place bringing the room back into focus. He was only four hours in on what had been a slow but steady night shift in the control room for the Northeast, or A Division of Police Scotland. They were part of the regional resources but how long it would remain in existence was a subject of much debate. There was talk of closing his beloved UB Hotel, as it was known, and controlling the entire region from the central belt. The whole idea seemed daft to him especially after the recent controversy. Victims of a car crash had lain undiscovered for two days because local officers in Stirling had been unable to locate a crash site. This was down to the control room operator being unfamiliar with the area. He could easily see the same thing happening in Aberdeen, and more so in the shire, but that decision was so far above his pay grade it was pointless to spend any time analysing what might happen. It made no sense to him, but then again, these things never did, and he would, as always, go with the flow.

   The control room was on the third floor of the headquarters on Queen Street and occupied most of the floor space on the level. It was laid out in groups of three stations which were designed to manage just about any situation that occurred in the city. They also oversaw the incoming 999 calls for the area. Each station had three screens that were all fed from the same interconnected system with access to communication lines to any officer or any other emergency service at the touch of a screen. Each unit’s position was relayed back via the GPS information from the handheld radios and vehicle mounted installations. The civilian operators were the first point of contact. If there was anything that was requiring an elevated response it would be filtered through to the officers on duty, anything else would be passed to him for assessment and allocation. The large monitor on the wall opposite him showed an updated list of all on-going incidents and live calls as they happened. His position was the primary point. It was supposed to be efficient and most of the time it was.

On this occasion there was just over half of the twenty-four stations staffed and some of them were inactive. The banter between the unoccupied operators was often worth listening to, but he seldom indulged. There was not much going on, nothing worth writing home about anyway. A couple of domestics, some kids riding motorbikes without helmets out at Shedocksley, the usual Wednesday night from the centre of town and a call to assign the personnel for CID requesting uniform assistance for a drug thing they had going on, or in other words; nothing unusual. Yep, it was just another night at the office as far as he was concerned.

   His days of being surprised at the ignorance and sheer stupidity of the common or garden variety of criminal were long gone. He remembered when a couple of bright young brain surgeons from Torry decided they were going to break into the off licence on Victoria Road. They had this great idea that if they knocked off the power at the sub-station and thereby killing the power to the off licence then they could walk right in. Somehow, they had managed to break into the sub-station and successfully isolated the power to the whole of Victoria Road without permanently fusing themselves to the National Grid, but in the process had set off every alarm on the street. It had sparked a major incident which had taken up a large slice of the available workforce in tracking down all the key holders. It had cost the public thousands of pounds and all the culprits got in return were a few hours of community service. It didn't seem right. There was no respect for the law these days because they had no fear of the consequences. They didn't care if they got caught or not because they knew it would only mount to a metaphorical smack on the wrist - at worst. His dad had been an old school beat bobby. He was always strict and fair in equal amounts. If he misbehaved, he got his backside skelped till he couldn't sit down for a week. It had taught him a respect for authority. It was a mind-set that he had grown up with and led to him joining the Grampian Police after he left school.

   It was his turn on the graveyard shift, eight till six. It was the first of four shifts that would extend into the weekend. Friday and Saturday, as always, would be pandemonium. Saturday was bonfire night; always the busiest for the Fire Service and as a result they too would be kept on their toes. All the positions would be staffed and working flat out just trying to keep all the balls in the air, lurching from one crisis to the next. It would be wall to wall mayhem, but it made the time pass quicker. With his experience he would take it in his stride, like he always did. Yep, nothing much fazed old James Munro.

He looked up as Janice, one of the civilian operators, came over to his desk at the head of the room. She was dependable, level-headed and could be trusted to make the right decision. She looked pale.

   “What's up Janice? You look like you've seen a ghost.” Her eyes were wide and fixed. Her movements were slow and deliberate, but she had that look on her face of a rabbit that had stared down an arctic lorry and survived to tell the tale.

   “I think you need to hear this one for yourself Jim.” He looked at her and she turned to head back towards her station. He followed her through the semi-darkness. The other operators continued dealing with their own calls. Janice sat back down and slipped on her headset. Still puzzled he plugged his headset into the spare jack on her interface and listened. She selected the ‘last call received’ button on her touch display and pressed ‘play.’

   He experienced confusion at first, then the hairs on the back of his neck raised like never before, his belly jumped, and he felt his heart rate pick up as the adrenaline coursed through his veins. The confusion was gone now and replaced by something else; he was not surprised - he was shocked.

   “When did this come in?” he asked.

   “Just a few minutes ago.” He understood now why she looked the way she did. He was quite sure he had the same expression on his own face at that moment.

   “Did you do the trace?”

   “Of course.”

   “What did you find?” She pointed to the screen displaying all the available information about the call but where the caller ID should have been only showed a row of random characters. “How can that be?” She shrugged her shoulders. It added to the problem and an apparent mystery that needed to be solved. “What about the transcript?” She pressed a function key that would show the transcript of the call but in this case all that was showing was her side of the conversation. The lines of green words inter-spaced with empty voids where the caller’s words should be. It added to his confusion. “It has been alright tonight? No glitches?” She shook her head. She brought up the list of recent calls logged and selected a previous one that had taken place just minutes before the latest one. It contained a normal conversation with both sides displayed. It showed Janice's part of the conversation, again in green interspersed with the caller’s responses in red. He looked at her.

   “What does it mean, Jim?” She flicked the screen back to the new call.

   “I have no idea.” He looked at the screen. With the new voice recognition software, the transcript of any call was automatically flashed up on the screen. It worked fine if the caller had little or no accent, but in Aberdeen that was not even close to being the norm. It would still try and make a guess what the caller was saying, and the guess would be logged. This was different; in this case there was nothing. Whatever it was that he had heard, the software had been unable to interpret. He hardly found that surprising as he was finding it hard to grasp himself, and he had no wish to listen to it again. The goose bumps on his arms had yet to subside. There was no record of what the caller had said, only the memory. He involuntarily gave another little shudder, not as bad as the previous one, more of an aftershock. His dad would have described the feeling that it was as if someone had just walked over your grave. He had no trouble believing that, but they had to move forward.

   “Fine, report it as a possible fault. Get an engineer to check it and send the audio and transcript to forensics in Dundee for manual analysis. Put an ‘Urgent’ on it, then send it upstairs. Whatever that was, it’s way above our pay grade.” He would spend the rest of the night trying to forget the incident.