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Princess of death

By The Sea: Part I, Chapter 3

Henry Gee 3 June 2007

www.lablit.com/article/262

I don’t think I could go there at night, let alone sleep
there

Editor's note: We are pleased to continue the weekly serialization of an original novel by Henry Gee, By The Sea. Set in present-day Norfolk, Gee blends science, murder, sex and Victorian secrets into a dark, gothic thriller.

Chapter Three

Leaning in at an awkward angle through the front passenger door of the car, rain glancing from his back and shoulders, the man bends over the child in the car seat on the rear bench.

“Are you strapped in, little one?” he smiles. The child gurgles in recognition, “Love Daddy! Love Daddy!” and waves well-padded arms and legs. The man clicks the straps home, smiles again, closes the door, shrugs his hood against the sheeting rain and moves round to the driver’s side. Settling in, he starts the engine. The car, an ancient three-door hatchback painted a vivid yellow (the family calls it the ‘Flying Banana’) skitters into the glutinous morning traffic.

“Playgroup, here we come! Vroom! Vroom!” says the man, heart on his infant son, eyes on the bumper-to-bumper morning gridlock in the September downpour.

“Woom! Woom!” comes the excited response.

The traffic grunts slowly forward, stop-and-start, stop-and-start, seen rhythmically through each pass of the squeaking wipers. And so, fitfully, the yellow car makes its way through the side streets to a run-down high road that no amount of water can wash completely clear of the fast-food containers and the gum splodged to its sidewalks. The tiny yellow corpuscle edges along this clogged artery, slowly past the newsagent and mini-mart, the betting shop and the fried-chicken restaurant, towards a junction with an intimidating gyratory beneath an urban freeway. The yellow cell now halts quivering, queuing for entrance to this urban cyclone.

Frustration creeps in, dark counterpoint to the cheerful nursery banter, the well-worn tape of children’s favorites on the stereo. Stuck behind a building-supplies truck full of sand, and in front of a white delivery van which has been hanging on impatiently to the yellow car’s rear fender, the driver feels cramped, boxed-in, fearful. He wipes condensation from the inside of the windshield.

“Mummy doesn’t have to put up with this,” he murmurs, as Nellie the Elephant starts on the road to Mandalay. “Mummy drives a police car with a big blue light and a siren. Nee naw! Nee-naw!”

“Nee-naw! Mummy car! Mummy car!” returns the antiphon.

Mummy got up early and drove in her own car through silent streets to the Police Station, where she is a detective working with a huge team which is nonetheless never quite large enough to rein in the many-headed monster that is TubeWave, the new drug sweeping the city. But a part of her remains, willing on this little yellow bubble of joy. Mummy sits in the empty passenger seat like a ghost from the past and the future, watching, helpless, unable to answer, to respond, or to warn.

The car edges to the front of the line, to take its chance on the gyratory. Nellie the Elephant says goodbye to the Circus, as she always does. I hate this junction, the driver thinks, I fear it. Even now that it’s controlled by lights, the moment of willing green is too fleeting within the parsimonious red for more than two or three vehicles to be admitted to the gyratory at any one time. With this little car, it’s always hard to gun the engine over to the much-desired, almost-unattainable farther lane of the gyratory before it runs the risk of being stampeded by a wave of traffic surging from the right. But if you, the driver, don’t take that chance, well, you’ll be hooted by the line of traffic behind you, drivers cursing that you didn’t have the guts to dare that tiny launch window, and will thus, through your pusillanimity, have condemned everyone to another three-and-a-half minutes of fuming immobility.

The lights go green, and the driver, whose name is Nicholas, floors it.

The elderly gearbox, despite this daily round, is always surprised by this sudden demand for acceleration. Lazily it selects a lower gear and prompts the engine into renewed life. Nicholas, both eyes on the far-side lane and praying that the car will reach it, at least one more time, is only vaguely aware of a sudden complete lull in the traffic, of a battered silver car running against the lights on the gyratory and zooming from right to left across his nose; of the blue and yellow flashing lights and sirens in pursuit.

The little yellow car is a mustard-seed, momentarily frozen in time on a deserted asphalt plain of infinite extent.

“Look out to the right, Nick!” Mummy screams, impotently, in the passenger seat, knowing with the omniscience of all ghosts that in the battered silver car is a runner carrying a briefcase full of TubeWave with a street value of three million pounds, and that it is being chased at high speed. “Pull up, Nick! For God’s sake, brake!” She turns to the driver, eyes bulging in terror, face white, veins throbbing in her neck and temples. But as she is only a ghost from the past and the future, the driver quite naturally ignores her.

Three-tenths of a second later, Nellie the Elephant has packed her trunk and the car is almost there, front nearside wheel breasting the line that marks the desired far-side lane, when the police cruiser slams into the little yellow car at ninety miles an hour.

Mummy, disoriented, finds herself confronted in her office by a female uniformed police officer she’s never seen; in a hospital with grim-faced doctors and nurses with unquenchable dark cisterns for eyes; in a crematorium with two coffins of unequal sizes; in a flat that seems too large and empty even though full of toys, all now untouchable; in another hospital where she herself is the patient; and everything, everywhere, always under grey skies which the Sun will never relieve, because the Sun has turned its back on this world.

Mummy, whose name is Detective Inspector Persephone Sheepwool, lately of the Metropolitan Police, finds herself transferred, at her own request, waking four months later in a storm streaking the windows of her neat sea-front flat in a town called Deringland where she might once have been taken on holiday as a very small child. Taken. Child. Don’t go there. Listen to the wind, Percy, and the surf. The waves will wash it all away.

**********

Sheepwool is always an early riser, and has leapt out of bed and into the shower almost before she knows she’s awake. Hot jets: hot jets to chase away the cold rain and the shreds of dreams.

Bordfield Court, facing the Winter Gardens and the sea on Deringland’s once-fashionable West Promenade, had been a hotel in the town’s Victorian heyday, but hard times had blinded its windows, loosened its slates, until a developer bought it for a song and took his time turning it into posh flats. Having fled London, Sheepwool could afford to buy one of the poshest: on the third floor, with spectacular sea views. It is a haven of bright metropolitan warmth and neatness in what seems, to her, to be a town of clustered shadows.

But Bordfield Court cannot but retain its character, which it gathers jealously to itself, a bombazined dowager hoarding funereal jet. Although a fundamentally sound structure, it had been faced in parts with soft sandstone, which has all but given up its centuried battle with the North Sea. So what might once have been finials, pseudo-palladian ornaments or even gargoyles are now polished into anonymous, abstract shapes. Where the sandstone had disappeared completely, successive owners had tried patching it with concrete, which made any surrounding sandstone wear away even more quickly: or the local Norfolk Red bricks, which, while more forgiving, started to erode in their own characteristic patterns. And so the face of Bordfield Court could be read as its autobiography, as weather-shorn as that of any fisherman pulling up his crab-boat on the beach below its high gables.

Inside her flat, Sheepwool can ignore such external manifestations. But she cannot forget them, because they intrude on her life in the form of the ghostly noises of the plumbing; the eerie keening of the storm, blowing conch-like across any channel in the gothic roofline; and the elevator, restored to its art-nouveau brass-knurled glory and unreliability. Unless laden with shopping, Sheepwool usually decides not to risk it and takes the stairs instead, heels clattering up uneven marble treads.

Now Sheepwool towels and dresses, ceaseless animation emphasizing her tall, angular frame, her cool blue eyes. She has always been restless, but these days she feels that she simply cannot stop, must fill every moment with activity, the kinesis as of a child, which catches up with it on a sudden, freezing it into the immobility of sleep while still in the midst of play. Because she knows that if she pauses, even for a moment, she would be sucked down so far and so fast that she might never find her way back up to the light.

The storm eases a little into the chill gray of an early January morning. Even as she dresses in the half-light of dawn, Sheepwool can see the white wave-crests out to sea soften and fade, leaving a sullen sea beneath a sky scrubbed clean as a fishmonger’s counter. She swallows a too-hot mouthful of instant coffee, pours the remainder down the sink, swishes on her overcoat, grabs her bag and sets off for work. But weather viewed from the seclusion of an interior, even one with spectacular sea views, is deceptive. As Sheepwool opens the heavy front door of her building, pulling it towards her, the wind seizes it and pushes it brusquely into her face, needles of the northern blast ripping at her lapels and sleeves.

Once outside, Sheepwool turns right and clicks determinedly along the seafront towards the town, the scoriating breeze etching cold lines on her left cheek as she walks, eyes half-closed against the relentless salt. She passes boarded-up hotels, bed-and-breakfasts with forlorn signs creaking like gibbets on rusted chains, advertising vacancies. On the corner of Charles Street, a canyon between tall Victorian rooming houses that stabs southwards into the town centre, the wind takes her, blowing her along the sidewalk. Dislocated refuse clatters along around her: a loose sheet of the Deringland Mercury catches up with her and wraps itself around her calves which, already strained in her high heels, tighten further as she buttresses herself against the pressure. Blown and tottering for another twenty yards, she finds the protruding frontage of the Three Kings, weatherworn picnic tables chained to the frontage, sign-board straining.

She stops in the lee of the pub to draw breath, and to do something with her hair, the moisture has darkened it from dirty blonde to a near-black chestnut and pasted it crazily across her face. Each wayward strand seems to have fixed itself to her face with the tenacity of a limpet. Her skin stings as she pulls each one free, as if she were removing a band-aid. She is glad she has her hair cut fairly short, but wishes she’d sometimes be less unbendingly fashion-conscious, more acquiescent towards practicality (not to mention middle-age), and worn a headscarf. And thick trousers instead of this twin-set. And sneakers instead of heels. Ah, she smiles to herself, When I Am Old I Shall Wear Purple. She presses on.

At the mini-roundabout just after the pub, she turns south-west and climbs the gentle ascent of Cable Street, the petrol station and the supermarket providing welcome relief from the wind. Across the road and thirty yards further she attains her goal, Deringland Police Station, its heavy blue lamp hanging over the gravel yard of what must once have been a pleasant Edwardian villa, hydrangeas leafing around chafed iron railings. The Station’s stone-trimmed storm-porch is a null of the weather, the air hanging completely still and without character: pausing here before entering the building and getting entangled in the routine of the working day, she finds herself unnaturally warm, the only conscious recognition of her body’s efforts to stave off the remorseless chill. She’s an idiot, she thinks, to be walking to work on a day like this. Especially in these heels.

Only now does she recall not having seen a single pedestrian on her walk, not even a dog-owner grimly parading his charge, whatever the weather: and very few cars, either. Only two are parked on the Station forecourt: the regular patrol car, and the highly-polished mulberry-purple Rover 75 belonging to her superior, Superintendant Ivan Methwold.

She has hardly clacked her way down the checkerboard-tiled hall and into the small office she shares with Elaine Fitch; hardly sloughed off her overcoat which, dark with moisture, almost drags her to the ground as it falls, when her desk phone rings. It is an internal call. Methwold.

“Sir?”

“Sheepwool. Saw you come in. A word?”

**********

It was Methwold who had first welcomed Sheepwool to Deringland, as a favour to an old colleague in the Met. To her he has been nothing but kind, keeping out of her way as she finds her feet, establishes her new life. She wonders, though, whether his self-effacement has something more to it: that beneath the rotund, fifties-ish exterior there hums an engine of incredible power. It is just a feeling, though, but her feelings have always been reliable, as has her observation, that whenever Methwold walks into a room, all attention is diverted towards him, all conversation stops. He is one of those people whom one is always surprised to find is smaller than you expect.

Certainly, he is nothing special to look at. Grayish, both inside and out, he seems quite forgettable, once his quiet authority has been established: as if, once he has ordered his Universe, it can be trusted to run quite well on its own without his direct intervention.

Forgettable, that is, until you see his eyes.

Shielded beneath heavy spectacles with bottle-glass lenses and thick black frames, it is hard to see his eyes at all unless he is looking directly at you. And when that happens, one sees not the eyes of a human being but of a golden retriever of great age, wells of trust and loyalty which, it seems, have been lately betrayed; and which, helpless to express some great loss and therefore lessen it, are all the deeper and more sorrowful. Both eyes, Sheepwool notices as she sits neatly before his desk, often flicker, so briefly as if he seems ashamed of the fact, if he is aware of it at all, to the silver-framed photograph of a smiling middle-aged woman, the only object on the green-leathered desktop apart from the telephone.

“All well, I hope?”

“Perfectly well, Sir, thank you.” A pause.

“Sheepwool, something’s come up. Something I’d like you handle. I can let you have Fitch, if you like.” He smiles. Sheepwool had been handling some routine, low-level crime. Very little worse than after-hours drinking at the Dazed Haddock. Liaison with Rammell from Customs and Excise. Far less exalted, for certain, than the kind of work she’d been used to at the Met. But for a while it was all she felt she could manage.

“My other casework…”

“…will be taken care of.” Another pause. An antique clock ticks benignly on the wall behind Methwold. The many voices of the wind can be heard faintly in the background.

“Sir?”

“Ah. Yes. It’s a death, sad to say. During the night. One Dr Evanston Bland. A scientist up at the Institute. Found dead, on the floor of his lab, by another scientist.”

“Suspicious?”

“Don’t know. Maybe, maybe not. Probably not. Elderly man, on the point of retirement. Could just be a heart attack. In any case, that’s for Levy to decide.” Jim Levy was the police pathologist. “But one never knows. After last night’s storm, and, well, it is the Institute, after all.”

“There’ll be an inquest, Sir?”

“Oh, definitely. So you get up there with DS Fitch. She knows the details. Find out what’s going on.” Sheepwool takes that as a dismissal, orders having been issued, and is just about to rise from her seat, when something occurs to her.

“Sir, you said something about the Institute?” Methwold looks up, surprised, as if he’d expected that Sheepwool would already have departed.

“Oh? Yes, ah, the Institute. One of Deringland’s more…ah…unusual attractions. Have you been there?”

“No, Sir. Not yet.”

“Well, you will, with Fitch. Today, if possible. Let me know what you come across.” The atmosphere comes down like a theater curtain. Sheepwool takes the hint and gathers herself to leave.

**********

In the car, Sheepwool is left almost alone with her thoughts as Fitch, driving, chatters on. Sheepwool chides herself, if only mildly, for being so uncharitable, that she can let Fitch’s near-continuous monologue become the aural equivalent of floral wallpaper while she pieces things together in her own mind. In any case, Fitch’s unceasing talk is something like having the radio on in the background. Even without listening to every word, it is a companion, a friend, even, in any case, a bulwark against the otherwise all-consuming silence. Fitch, for her part, likes to work for a DI who lets her own stream of consciousness become a flood, her boss interrupting only occasionally, selecting a choice morsel like a bear dipping for salmon in the white water. The partnership, while clearly not made in heaven, rubs along tolerably well.

The police car is an elderly MG Metro that huffs down the hill and into town, the same hill up which Sheepwool had toiled a few minutes earlier, although now turning right at the mini-roundabout just before the Three Kings to enter the High Street, the town’s main thoroughfare, parallel to the sea rather than orthogonal to it. Sheepwool notices that the wind has dropped and an apologetic winter Sun has come out, casting Deringland into flat planes of wan light and smudges of charcoal shadow. Even now, only few people can be seen, as if subservient to the architecture rather than its masters. Square arches outside Woolworths conceal slouchy youths, bored at the fag-end of the Christmas holidays. The few restaurants are boarded up. The florist, the butcher, the all-for-a-pound discount store, the greengrocer, all are open, but waiting, tense.

“The Institute? Oh, yes…” says Fitch, pulling up at a zebra crossing to allow the passage across the street of a woman, old beyond her years, flat, bacon-red face and streaky russet hair scraped back violently into a ponytail. The woman is accompanied by a snotty toddler and some complicated kind of stroller-car-seat combo with tiny child in it, cosseted like a pearl in an oyster’s mantle.

Child. Stroller. Road. Car.

Sheepwool wakes from her musing with a start, swimming alongside Fitch’s chatter. Sheepwool senses that for all their apparent mindlessness, Fitch’s words actually connect as if they have in fact some higher order, some end in view, like the seeming purpose of a great flock of birds about to migrate a thousand miles, for all that the consciousness of any one individual might barely count even as one dim spark.

“You were saying?”

“Yes, Ma’am, the Institute, funny old place. Went there a few times as a kid, with school. Full of glass cases and weird stuff. But we all laughed at the mermaids. Especially one of them, Pickled Lily. Oh, we laughed all right, even though she gave us all nightmares, you know? The way she looks at you…gave me the willies, I don’t mind saying. Haven’t been back since. She’s still there, though, Pickled Lily, you’ll get to see her, my own kids saw her the other day on a school trip. Couldn’t get Eric, he’s my little boy, to sleep for a week after. I don’t think much ever changes up there. But the Institute, well, it’s a bit of a landmark, really…”

“Did you say ‘mermaids’?”

“Oh yes, Ma’am, loads of them. All fakes, or at least, I think so. It all started with the founder, I made sure to read up on it again soon as I heard about the death, just to remind myself, of course, but everyone here knows all about it.”

Of course. The Institute slouches on a clifftop bluff at the very highest point of Deringland. It lurks in the background of every view, is seen out of the corner of every eye. “Well, he was some old nutcase called Sir Freddy…ay-kay-ay Sir Frideric Lowdley-Purring. He was some kind of surgeon in London in Georgian times. Regency. You know, Mr Darcy and all that stuff. He, that’s Sir Fred, not Mr Darcy, had a big collection of curios, you know, fossils, antiques and stuff, and retired up here, kind of. He bought the big house that became the Institute, up on the cliffs, and…”

“He ‘kind of’ retired?”

“Yes, well, there were all sorts of stories about that, too. About how Lady Fred was an invalid who hated the big city and pined for the sea air. At least, that’s the quotes ‘official’ story. But there were other ones, you know, about how Sir Fred had to flee London because of some kind of bad business, you know, hushed up.” Fitch turns her blue eyes to Sheepwool, her slightly greasy, laugh-creased young face framed by disordered straw-blonde curls: “Secret experiments. Vivisection. Bodysnatching.” Sheepwool starts.

“You were going to tell me about the mermaids.”

“Yes, sorry, Ma’am. Well, apparently, I read, it was quite the fashion for old Sir Fred and his surgeon pals to cut up bits of different animals and sew them together to make fake monsters, just for fun. Fred made a few of his own and collected a lot more. Cats with wings. Furry fish. Frog princes! You know, all sorts. But mermaids were his favourites, you know, the front ends of monkeys sewn to the back ends of fishes. But Pickled Lily...” She shudders.

Past the gray, gothic mass of the church, an edifice of a hugeness out of all proportion to the town of which it is a part, the High Street narrows between older buildings that lean slightly out of true. The street is plunged into slatey shadow. Fitch concentrates on the narrowing street and her speech, as if constrained by the road’s dimensions, breaks up into syntactical fragments, and at one point, dies.

The car approaches a set of traffic lights and Fitch indicates left, to the eastward coast road, rather than straight ahead, up the hill, the road which would eventually take them to Norwich. As the car slows, Sheepwool looks to her left and finds herself confronted, not six feet away, with a model of what looks like a gigantic octopus. She can’t be sure, given the shadows, and the double reflections on both the passenger-side window and the glass of the shop window, but the eyes follow her malevolently, and some of the plasterwork tentacles end in human hands.

She glances upwards and realizes it’s just a shop display: the shop itself is called ‘Secrets of the Sea’ and appears to sell glass fishing-net floats, model boats, preserved starfishes and similar lobster-pottery. She wonders why she’d never noticed the shop before, especially given the extravagance of the display, but realizes that it’s only fully visible from the passenger door of a car, slowing at the lights. The low-set window, giving on to a very narrow pavement in an otherwise dark street would mean that a passing pedestrian would see only glancing reflections from the plate-glass window. You could pass it on foot a thousand times and not realize it was there, unless, of course, you were looking for it.

Fitch senses her unease. “Ah yes, ‘Secrets’. We’ve had some trouble with them. Stolen goods. Never quite managed to pin them down, though. There’s a connection with the Institute, funnily enough, did you know that? There are suspicions, and only suspicions, worse luck, that some of the specimens turn up in ‘Secrets’ from time to time, though they’ve always gone before we can be sure. It’s very frustrating. For my money I’d finger that Bob Honeypott.”

“Honeypott?”

“Yes, Black Bob. He was in my year at school. A sly one, that one. Always on the edge of the bad crowd but too clever by half to be caught actually doing anything naughty. Believe it or not, he asked me out once! Thank goodness I said no. I had just started going out with my Jason at the time, and, well, anyway, he, that’s Bob, not my Jason, works some evenings at the Dazed Haddock. But his Mum, Ma Honeypott, now, there’s a dazed haddock if ever there was one, runs ‘Secrets’. And by day he’s a janitor at the Institute. So he’s got the means, and the motive. We just haven’t been able to finger him, that’s all. And, oh yes, ” Fitch selects another idea from her bird’s-nest mind as she slides efficiently into second gear, eyes darting to the mirrors as she knits the wheel to turn left.

“Bob’s fingers are in all sorts of pies. Gerry Rammell, you know Gerry? He’s that nice man from Customs and Excise…” Sheepwool recalls seeing Fitch and one or two of the younger female staff gushing over their recent visitor, tall and well-groomed with a smooth Irish lilt. “Well, Gerry said that he thought someone’s been spiking some of the spirits at the Dazed Haddock with pure alcohol, you know, like from a laboratory. He said, strictly off the record, mind, that he’d not be surprised if our Bob wasn’t lifting other things from the Institute apart from the occasional seashell. Well, Gerry, he’s a laugh, but sometimes I think he’s kissed the blarney stone a few times too often!”

“He told me something of the sort, too.”

“But sorry, Ma’am, the Institute.” Fitch, realizing that she’s strayed a little way from the well-measured path of the subject, swerves back on to her intended course. “Well, it’s more than a Museum, as you know. It’s a kind of research institute. Scientists work there. Some of them even live there. Dr Bland, though, he’s the one who died, didn’t, so I wonder what he was doing there in the middle of the night. You know? I don’t think I could go there at night, let alone sleep there. Imagine, tucking yourself in bed at night in the same building as Pickled Lily. Anyway, there they are, working on all kinds of obscure stuff connected with marine biology…”

“ ‘Secrets of the Sea’?”

Fitch utters a silent thanks for an understanding DI. “Yes, exactly. Who knows what they are up to? But apparently it’s all in Sir Fred’s ‘mission statement’: we all have to have those, these days, don’t we? But it was the same back, then, too. Nothing new! Anyway, Sir Fred made it known that his Institute would be devoted to uncovering, hang on…” A crease interrupts Fitch’s blonde brow. “That’s exactly it. I read it. Fred’s statement uses those exact words, ‘secrets of the sea’, just like the shop. It’s in all the Institute’s publicity and I never noticed, all this time. How funny!”

By the deft pilotage of DS Elaine Fitch, the car thrums along the gray eastward road out of Deringland. Old and stately houses, faced in brick and flint, huddle on their right: on the left, under a lingering skein of mist, is a small municipal park extending to the cliff tops, overlooking the sea itself.

Connections form in Sheepwool’s mind. What, indeed, was Bland doing at the Institute late at night, if he didn’t live there?

“What more do we know of Bland? The deceased?” she asks. Fitch grows from chatty-girl mode to policewoman as if Sheepwool had flicked a switch. The effect is disconcerting.

“Sixty-five next birthday, March twenty-first, and due to retire, Ma’am. He was the Director of the Institute, just handing over to a new broom, a Dr Morrison. We’ll meet him when we get there. Bland didn’t do much research, nothing for years. Lived in a bungalow at Halberd Park, just up the hill from here. Not far from us, actually, next street, funny, I never met him, or maybe I saw him around, you know, in the local shop. No children, never met him on the school run, anyway, and never married, as far as I can find out. Cause of death? The Super thought probably natural causes, heart attack, but being the Institute, he said, we should go in to rule out anything unusual.” Sheepwool remembers her own less-than-revealing conversation with Methwold.

“Form?”

“Dr Bland? No, Ma’am. Except…”

“Except?”

“Well, there had been a few complaints about him over the years. Sexual harassment.”

Sheepwool is silent for a spell. The park gives way to a few more houses, then, on both sides, brick-and-flint barns, and what look like fields behind wind-wracked Scots pines. The road begins to twist and to climb. Within moments, the town is behind them, and as the road winds, Sheepwool gets a good look at it. Seen like this, from above, sunk within the folds of mist-laden hills, Deringland looks like it might be charming in the summer. Children…children playing on the beach, making sandcastles, beachcombing with Daddy, Mummy watching them both against the sea, small silhouettes against huge foreshortened waves…But no, in January, in the apologetic sunshine that follows a storm, it looks like a flayed carcass. Sheepwool turns her face against it.

“Who found the body?”

“Dr Morrison reported the death, Ma’am.”

“Not what I meant.”

“Ah, sorry, Ma’am. Bland was actually found by a scientist called Alex Beach, working late in another lab, close by.”

“Alex?”

“Yes, Ma’am. Morrison didn’t say so, but the only Alex Beach at the Institute is a woman. I wondered, you know, why Morrison didn’t say that, or why the Super didn’t tell me. Do you think there’s a connection with Bland and his…er…previous?”

Sheepwool mutters abstractedly that there might be. Why should a woman call herself Alex, she thought, if not to hide her gender in a discipline, science, probably as male-oriented as the police, in which advertising oneself as a woman might be held against you?

Just like her.

Persephone, princess of death, whom death would always follow. But in the police force, always ‘Sheepwool’, and to everyone else always ‘Percy’, once upon a time to Nick, and now even to herself. She has not yet met Alex Beach, but already she feels they have something in common. Even though she could be first in line, were a suspect required; and if Bland were making advances on her; and if this Morrison person were trying to protect her…no, wait and see. Already too many maybes, too many unknowns. Wait until we get there, Percy, she tells herself.