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Fiction

The perennial survivor

By The Sea: Part I, Chapter 5

Henry Gee 17 June 2007

www.lablit.com/article/270

Death makes him squeamish, but of course, she doesn’t know that

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 Five

“Detective Inspector, Detective Sergeant, please come in, take a seat.” And so, obediently they sit.

Morrison returns to his desk, and as he does so, he sees himself, for an instant, as a mouse in the gaze of two cats. He is grateful to be able, finally, to interpose the solid Scandinavian pine (his own touch, that) between the policewomen and himself. But Morrison is no passive rodent, and in those few seconds when the policewomen arrange themselves in their chairs, in which their eyes are not on him, but on their skirts, their bags (Ye Gods! Female impedimenta!) he has a chance to get his story straight. And yet he feels his mind scrabbling for purchase. So maybe he is no more than a hamster on a wheel, vainly trying to escape the cool gaze of these predators. Morrison, he says to himself, get a grip. Be proactive.

Strategize. Morrison’s clean, efficient mind rolls out Truth, Version 1.1.

Strengths. Morrison sees himself as the perennial survivor, having been through just one too few close shaves as you’d need to end a career, but coming out on top as a Director of this Institute, and still surfing the wave of opportunity. Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger: had Morrison a coat of arms, that would be his motto.

Sure, he is a little nervous right now, he admits, but that’s probably natural, and anyone would feel the same were the police to visit one in one’s office. The police make you feel guilty if they feel you up on the street for some perfectly innocent reason, don’t they? Sure, it’s unfortunate that a member of your staff is found dead in the lab at some ungodly hour in what may, or may not, be suspicious circumstances, but Morrison feels – knows – that he had nothing to do with it. Well, ‘knows’ might be too strong a word, no such word as ‘never’ in science, nor marketing for that matter, but 95-per cent confidence limits would surely bracket certainty. ‘Surely’? He hates that word. When anyone in his old team used the word ‘surely’ in an argument against him he knew his adversary had left solid ground for special pleading. That’s when he went for the jugular. Just like the Detective Inspector is about to do now. And there’s enough uncertainty, just enough, to put him on his guard. Just in case any uneasiness should creep out, and the Detective Inspector should get the wrong impression.

Problems. He has the distinct impression that the autopilot of mindless politesse is at an end and that Sheepwool is asking him a question.

“Dr Morrison, you’ll appreciate that we have to ask you some questions. If you don’t mind?” The Inspector’s eyes are blue-gray and cold. They’re rather like Alex Beach’s eyes, he thinks. But unlike hers, he can see nothing behind Sheepwool’s eyes at all. No warmth. No yearning need. Nothing that might offer him any advantage.

“Yes, Inspector. Of course.” He tries his most reassuringly resonant TV-ads-voiceover voice. The one that always astounds people, as its ballsiness seems so surprising given his physical stature. Despite a certain constriction in his throat, he thinks, he hopes, it’s working as well as it usually does.

“For example, could you tell us where you were last night?”

“I was at home, asleep, Inspector. I live up the road in Tribenham. Barn conversion. Decent job. Lucky to get it at the price.” He immediately senses he might have said too much: gibbering about nothing is always a sign of inner guilt. Sheepwool, across the desk to his right, shifts fractionally forward in her chair, as Fitch, she’s the curly-girlie-blonde one across the desk to his left, sits back, allowing her superior to take the lead.

Yes, that’s the problem. There are two of them, and only one of him. They’ll be able to dissect his story later, between the two of them, bouncing it between them like a volleyball (he is not sure whether the mildly pornographic image created by this simile is pleasant or disturbing). They will have the chance to probe every hole, even if the hole doesn’t exist. But on the other side, his own, there’ll only be one of him, just talking to himself. No objectivity. He could talk some of this over with Alex, for sure. But not really as equals. Not right now. Not now that he’s landed her in it.

“Can anyone vouch for your presence at your home?”

Opportunities. Morrison reminds himself that he’s a survivor: that after a spell as a scientist that lurched from disaster to near catastrophe, he rose to the surface in marketing, and more than surface, to dominate. That’s how he got here. Director. By his achievements. That, and some insider knowledge of the less well-known features of Truth, Version 1.0. He can do this, he tells himself.

“Well, Inspector…it’s, you know…private.”

“Perhaps, Dr Morrison, but we have to rule out everyone, even the Director.”

But Morrison simply stonewalls and looks down at his desk. It’s a game of chicken, between the Inspector and himself. It’s a game which he has never let himself lose. Ever. And this time is no exception. The Inspector sits back. Morrison has got away, this time.

Threats. Threats? No, not really. It suddenly strikes Morrison how tall the Inspector seems, and yet how awkward, even in the well-cut suit she’s wearing. That’s because she’s so thin, he thinks. Not slim, thin. There’s a difference. She’s been through something. Something dreadful. Morrison guesses that she’s not quite as tough as she’d like to think she is. In which case there’s no need for her to play him like a fish.

Not when he can do the same to her.

“Would you like to know what happened last night, Inspector?”

Sheepwool looks up at him as if she’s been aroused from sleep.

“Yes, please, Dr Morrison. Do go ahead.” Sheepwool’s eyes look huge in her too-thin face. Morrison relaxes a little. Fitch gets out her notebook.

“I didn’t actually discover poor old Bland’s body. That was my colleague Dr Alex Beach. She was working late in the lab, and she found his body at about, ooh…”

Fitch looks at her notes. “…about 3.30 this morning.”

Really, Morrison thinks, this is just too easy.

“Yes, thank you. And the first thing she did, being a loyal member of the Institute, is phone me. Never mind that I’m at home, everyone here knows that I’m on call, twenty-four-seven. So after Dr Beach called me, I called you at…ah…”

This time Fitch simply waits for him to fall into his own trap: his voice topples into a grave of silence “At about…ah…ten to four.”

Bad move. Oh, yes. Fitch peers at her notes.

“Our record says it was a little later, Dr Morrison, at four-thirteen.”

A pause. The wind picks up again outside.

“Can you account for that discrepancy, Dr Morrison?” prompts Sheepwool. He decides to brazen it out.

“No, Inspector, I can’t,” he says, injecting a measure of asperity into his voice. “I’d been woken up with the news that a senior colleague lay dead in his lab. I’m afraid I didn’t keep an exact check on the time. And I have had very little sleep since.”

“Of course, Dr Morrison.” Sheepwool again. “Please continue.”

“Thank you, Inspector.” If Morrison is trying to look as though his amour-propre has been offended, the policewomen do not seem to be taking the bait. They remain motionless, looking at him. Once again he has the sensation that Sheepwool and Fitch are two cats, playing with him before striking.

“Dr Beach told me that she had been woken by the storm, decided she wasn’t going back to sleep, and so went to do some work instead. Have you ever been a junior postdoctoral fellow, Inspector? You have to put in the hours, and sometimes it’s just more efficient to work at night when there’s less chance of interruption.”

“She lives here, at the Institute?”

“Yes, Inspector. Some of our more junior and visiting staff live…ah…over the shop.”

“Dr Beach works in a laboratory a few doors down from Dr Bland’s own laboratory?”

“That’s right, she…”

“Can you tell us what she works on, Dr Morrison?”

“I…ah…well, I could, but perhaps you’d do better asking Dr Beach that question?” Morrison has a sense that Sheepwool is at least three more steps ahead of the game than he is. He feels a bead of sweat moisten the collar of his shirt just under the nape of his neck, and start to roll slowly, accusingly down his back.

“Yes, Dr Morrison, quite right. But what about Dr Bland?”

“Hmm?”

“Let me put it this way, Dr Morrison.” Sheepwool’s eyes are no longer expressionless. They appear to have acquired a note of intent, of deliberation, almost of…malice. “Dr Bland doesn’t, didn’t, live ‘over the shop’, as you put it. Do you know where he lived, Dr Morrison?”

Morrison suspects that Sheepwool knows the answer to this perfectly well. But he’ll have to trot out the answer like a schoolboy pulled up in front of the headmistress, or come up with some pathetic evasion. Game to Inspector Sheepwool.

“I…uh…he lived in the town, Inspector. A nice little bungalow in Halberd Park. I visited him there once or twice.”

“Quite so, Dr Morrison. So what, in your opinion, given that you weren’t there, might have Dr Bland been doing in the Institute, perhaps two miles from his home, in the early hours of a very stormy night?”

“I regret to say that I have no idea, Inspector.”

“Was it usual for Bland to be at work at that time of day? As it was, apparently, for Beach?”

“No, Inspector. Bland didn’t usually roll up here much before ten or eleven in the morning and had gone by the staff afternoon tea-break at four. But he, well, he was retired, and was probably keen to finish up a few things. Bland was Director-Emeritus, with his own key. He could come and go as he pleased. In any case, Inspector, that’s just me, speculating.” Morrison feels himself climb back on that horse.

“Yes, of course, Dr Morrison. And I wonder if I could ask you to speculate on another matter?”

“Inspector?” Morrison steels himself against a move four, perhaps even five ahead. Sheepwool shifts again, slightly forward in her chair. He sees her knees press white like knuckles of raw meat against the inside of her stockings.

“Do you happen to know if Dr Bland was worried about anything before he died?”

“Worried, Inspector?” He tries to stifle a slight croakiness in his polished-walnut voice.

“Yes. Worried. Concerned about something? Under stress? Such things do occasionally drive people to climb out of their beds and go to work on stormy nights.”

Morrison is almost convinced he is imagining it, but Sheepwool seems to get, if possible, even thinner as she asks the question, which, in any case, she seems to be addressing more to herself. Morrison is grateful for Sheepwool’s introspection, for he has broken into another sweat which he thinks could probably pass as radioactive, had the detectives had Geiger-counters.

Morrison does not answer the question.

And, amazingly, Sheepwool does not press him. “Well, perhaps, Dr Morrison, it is speculation and thus not fair to ask you such things. But if I may, Dr Fitch should like to make some arrangements with your receptionist…” Fitch rises as if on cue, nods to Morrison and Sheepwool and leaves. “And, if I might trouble you further, can I show you something, Dr Morrison?” Sheepwool beckons Morrison out of his own office. He can do nothing but follow her lead. As if he is a puppet. He resigns himself to this dance, this charade, wondering what will happen when the music stops.

**********

Without having to be told, Morrison knows that Sheepwool, her eyes boring into the back of his head as they walk, wants him to take her to Bland’s laboratory. He cannot understand why she wants him to accompany her. Death makes him squeamish, but of course, she doesn’t know that.

So, leaving his office unlocked, he leads Sheepwool back through the gallery and into the main hall, down the steps past the statue of Sir Frideric, and to the laboratories. There he waits, like a pupil lagging in the corridor for his teacher, for Sheepwool to catch up, and when she does, she moves some of the police tape aside to let them pass. They have exchanged no words since the abortive interview in his office. Now, at the lab complex itself, he opens his mouth to ask whether they really should be fiddling with the police tape, but receives an icy stare in response to this half-formed question. No more is needed for Morrison to grasp who’s boss. Christ, she may look as stringy as a sick turkey, but her mind is like the proverbial steel trap. And yet there’s some kind of protocol thing going on here, for once a gap is made in the tape, Sheepwool ushers Morrison through first. Taking a small bunch of keys from his trouser pocket, Morrison selects one with what he hopes doesn’t look like too much practiced ease. He is the Director after all, and doesn’t come down to the science complex more than he can help.

“Ah, here it is.” Trying not to fumble, he unlocks the door and bows Sheepwool through, in mimicry of her earlier gesture. She does not seem to pick up on this, but clacks down the shiny linoleum of the central corridor ahead of him, until she gets to Bland’s open door, looks in, and then turns to look at Morrison, still at the proximal end of the corridor. Her eyes are silent, but imperative. Meekly, he follows.

The door is barred by a single line of striped adhesive tape. Sheepwool does not touch this, but instead she and Morrison look over it, like two farmers peering over a neighbour’s gate.

So, thinks Morrison, this is what Alex must have seen in the early hours. Beyond a bench he can see, on the floor, two well-shod feet and expensively-trousered legs, only partly covered by a sheet. One of the trouser legs has ridden up to reveal skin as insipidly pale as a frog’s belly. Why had Alex made such a fuss? Well, I guess you can’t see his face from this angle, he thinks. And to come across a body, unexpectedly, at three-ish in the morning, and in a place as spooky as the Institute: well, no wonder she was upset. He’d have to make it up to her. Eventually. Women whose expectations you have crushed are gratifyingly undemanding.

But now he has a tiger at his side, which seems to be searching all the pores in his face, one at a time, calculating the best moment to pounce. Through the corner of one eye, Morrison can see Sheepwool’s every tic, and she seems more interested in him than in the Late Dr Evanston Bland, philanderer, squanderer and pompous pillock of the first order.

Really, the world is better off without tossers like him, always too distracted by a tasty figure or a pretty face to keep his eyes on the prize. If that’s death, then it’s not as worrying as he thought it might be, and indeed, it is much as he had expected. When Bland had confronted him to have what he called His Argument, he’d been popping pills (he said they were heart pills) like they were Smarties, and he was still as red as a beetroot and clearly agitated. Evidently, the pills couldn’t take the pressure. Bland had presumably come to his laboratory at this unlikely hour to think things over and his ticker had finally stopped ticking.

What was the big argument about?

Morrison struggles to remember. Oh yes, amazing! He’d wanted to argue about Alex! Like they were a pair of bulls slugging it out over a heifer. Pathetic. What a sad old fart Bland was. He remembers now, what he’d said, how he’d told Bland to (how did he put it?) Ah yes, ‘Futue Te Ipsum’. This had had quite some effect on an old man in who’d enjoyed a classical education. Anyway, that’s all he’d said, in response to Bland’s futile ravings.

And now Bland was dead. Ah, well, that’s life.

And, then again, death.

Morrison suppresses a smirk. A coronary, plain and simple, when it could have been so much worse. So very, very much worse. But for now, he’s in the clear. Relaxing, he realizes how tense he’s been, and turns to Sheepwool, whose gaze remains on him, unwavering.

“It looks like a case of an old man who had a heart attack, don’t you think, Inspector?” Morrison smiles, hoping to soften the chill. He fails.

“Possibly, Dr Morrison. That’s for the pathologist and the coroner to establish. What I need to know, however, is why Bland was here rather than at home in bed, a question which, you will remember, we could not address to our satisfaction, along with the related question of whether Dr Bland had been under some kind of stress, which we could not answer in any way whatsoever. If Dr Bland had suffered a heart attack, this becomes all the more pressing.” She turns to face him, both eyes, full on. Like blue holes. “And also, if I might add, we need to know who the last person was who saw Dr Bland alive.”

Morrison feels the nape of his neck prickle again, as it did when Sheepwool and that other policewoman, the blonde one, Fitch, were interviewing him in his office.

“That was Alex, Dr Beach, wasn’t it?”

“No, Dr Morrison, it was not. Dr Beach discovered Bland when he was already dead.” She clips every syllable, as if addressing an especially stupid teenager. But then, her voice softens, and Morrison sees her eyes taking on a misty glaze: “though perhaps he’d not long been dead when she found him. Dr Morrison –” she turns to him again with some urgency. He feels himself draw back reflexively in her gaze. “Dr Beach reported the death to you first. Your report to us was, in effect, at second hand. It’s important that you now give a statement to us recalling everything she said, in as much detail as you can. And we’ll be interviewing Dr Beach, of course.”

“Of course, Inspector.”

He’s off the hook again. But for how long?

**********

Elaine Fitch can’t get away from Dr Morrison’s office quickly enough. What a horrible man! He was good-looking though, with clothes like that, and the cool Swedish lines of his office made a refreshing change from the antique clutter of the rest of the Institute. But he made her flesh creep. She shudders involuntarily as she thinks of his ingratiating smile (all those teeth), the constant bead of sweat on his brow, and (ugh!) his clammy handshake. Jason always laughs when she gets home and the first thing she does is scrub her hands, hard, with a nailbrush. But her Jase always had the dry, hard hands of a builder and craftsman. It was one of the first things that attracted her to him, when they’d finally finished all that teenage pratting-about and got it together. That, and the fact that he’d look good in anything, and didn’t feel the need to dress up. That’s because, she realizes, Jason Fitch is as open and honest as the day is long. He has nothing to hide.

Unlike some people.

Actually, come to think of it, Morrison reminds her of her previous boss, now retired, all testosterone and after-shave, and of how glad she is to have hooked up with Detective Inspector Sheepwool. She’d never worked for a woman before, and wasn’t sure she’d feel really comfortable about it, but really it’s no trouble at all, and sometimes she feels that she does more of the looking-after than Sheepwool does herself. Of course, Sheepwool was just wished upon her (ours not to reason why!) but Fitch has the feeling that Sheepwool has had a rough time. You know, she thinks, it’s just a feeling, such as when sometimes she seems right on the case, really on the money, but then collapses inwardly, as if consulting some deep, internal resource? And then she snaps right out of it, gives a little, almost apologetic smile, and makes two and two make five, which was the right answer all along? Fitch is looking forward to asking Sheepwool what she thinks of Morrison. But that’s for later, down at the Station.

Now she’s got other fish to fry. As she walks towards the front of the building, looking for the side-office which she knows houses the Reception and general office of the Institute, she consults her notepad for a name.

She finds it: Mrs Janice Squearn, Administrator. She’d just jotted it down before they came, and hadn’t given it much thought.

Now the name screams out at her as if framed in blazing neon.

Elaine Fitch stops dead in the gallery, right in front of Pickled Lily (something she’d definitely not intended to happen) and all of a sudden she’s Elaine Southfield, aged eight and a half, and giggling because Bobby Honeypott is fooling around on the floor and trying to look up her skirt. From far above comes a voice, stern but kindly. It’s Mrs Squearn. Squirmy Squearn. Trying, mostly in vain, to shepherd her unruly flock of Year-Fours past Kitten Hell and in front of the mermaids. That’s when Elaine loses it, when the world, the world of Squirmy Squearn and Bobby Honeypott and that nice new boy, Jason, recedes as if visible only through the wrong end of a telescope. For Elaine, all Barbie-girl froth and bouncing curls, has locked eyes with Pickled Lily.

And Pickled Lily says to her: remember.

And Pickled Lily says to her: help me.

Fitch blinks, swallows hard, and all of a sudden she’s much taller, in a businesslike suit and all alone, no Bobby or Jason or Mrs Squearn, but still in front of Pickled Lily. Fitch has the disconcerting sense that it was then, back in Year Four, that the seed was sown; that the course was set for her to become a policewoman, because her task in life was to solve the mystery of Pickled Lily. Until then, she’d had no inkling that there was a mystery to solve. How silly! All because of that name, Janice Squearn. She shakes her head to disentangle herself, as it were, from this web of thought that’s wound, spider-like, all through her hair while she’s been locked in reverie. Surely, she thinks, the Institute’s Administrator can’t be her old teacher? But then there can only be so many people called Squearn, and not many of those can be called Janice. Yes, the chances are that’s what happened to her old teacher.

And so it proves.

**********

“Elaine Southfield! Who’d have thought it?” Janice Squearn, a neat, slender middle-aged woman, looks up from her desk in the cramped cubbyhole of her office, a radiant smile breaking through what looks like a fogbank of fatigue. She gets up, abseils round an overloaded desk and grabs Fitch’s hands with both of hers. “I had no idea it would be you, I didn’t make the connection…”

For the second time in the space of ten minutes, Fitch is a schoolgirl again. She feels herself flush, and shuffles her feet. Close-up, Squearn is very much older than she’d like to pretend. Careful make-up and precision-engineered hair have ensured that only someone who had known her in a former life can track the emotional scars that time has trampled all over this woman’s theater of a face, across which smiles flicker on and off, intermittently, like a fluorescent tube on the point of failure. When it’s off, she looks like she’s been dead for years. When it comes on again, she is reanimated to a degree that might convince almost anyone.

Anyone except Elaine Fitch, nee Southfield.

Fitch does not even have to open her mouth, still less to frame a question. Even as Squearn sweeps aside a pile of dusty papers and beckons Fitch to sit down in a fraying easy-chair opposite her desk, it all comes out, as if Squearn had been waiting years for precisely this audience to turn up.

“Oh, Elaine, you can’t tell how pleased I am that it’s you. How you’ve grown! And you still have those lovely curls! It was because of Dr Bland, who died, that I left you all. So suddenly. I’m so terribly, terribly sorry.”

Fitch remembers now (how could she have forgotten it?): the disorienting abruptness of the departure of a much-loved teacher who had been her idol since she’d been too tiny to, well, for as long as she could possibly remember, anyway. It was halfway through Year Six, just before graduation from Deringland Primary. The pain of loss at the time was indescribable, and of betrayal, too, that Mrs Squearn would leave, mid-term, marring the neat conclusion of all their Junior-school careers before the big leap to High School. Classes disrupted. School plays rescheduled. A succession of supply teachers who could not possibly fill such a gaping wound. But the minds of children are fickle, callous. Very soon other things came along to take Mrs Squearn’s place. Halberd Park High, intimidating, huge. New friends. Boys. Exams. Jason.

From a distance of twenty years, she recalls with only a vague sense of unease the announcement from the Headmaster one morning in Spring that Mrs Squearn had gone, and subsequently, what seemed like very careful efforts by the teaching staff never to mention her name again.

But for Mrs Squearn, the memories are still pristine, unworn by repetition, only waiting for the right moment to bloom. However long that might take.

“It all began when I brought you all here, to the Institute, in Year Four. My! I remember it now. You were all gathered in front of Pickled Lily, and I was just about to tell you about Sir Frideric, when I turned round…and there he was…”

Her eyes glaze, and for a moment she is lost. She brings herself back with a start. “Dr Evanston Bland. The Director of the Institute. He’d heard some noise; must have been Bobby making a row, and all you girls giggling! He’d come out of his office to see what it was…and, oh well, it was just like in a silly novel, but our eyes met across a crowded room. And that was that.” Her face hides itself under deeper clouds of anguish. Regret. Guilt?

“Mrs Squearn?”

“Yes…sorry…and to think, me, married for eighteen years, a teacher for twenty-five, teenage children, never even so much as looked at another man, and Evanston came along and swept me off my feet. He pressed and pressed me to leave my life behind, move here. With him. There was great work to be done. Scientific work. Together. So after more than a year of indecision I did it. I did what he asked. Of course, he played on my vanity.” Her voice hardens. The edge is surprising. Fitch doesn’t recall Mrs Squearn being this stern, ever.

“I wanted to become a research scientist, you know? Change the world. But in those days it was very difficult for a mere woman to do such things. Especially one already married and with children. I’m so glad you’ve succeeded in breaking into this world, this man’s world, for that’s what it is, Elaine, and don’t you forget it. Anyway, I drifted into a kind of part-time half-world of being a research assistant. Hours and hours sexing fruit-flies, that’s the lab equivalent of tea-girl, and being patronized by these men who I knew hadn’t half the commitment or talent I had. So in the end I became a teacher. I don’t regret it, mind, it was never second-best…”

She pauses to take a breath, sighs.

“So, silly me, I gave it all up, threw it all away, to follow science, here, with Evanston.”

A longer pause. Fitch is conscious of how heavily the silence drapes this small, windowless office. And of how stifling it is, how it smells of dust and mould; how dim the light; how scruffy the carpet, such fragments of it as can be seen through the crowded furniture, the computer equipment perched in nooks and corners designed for a pre-electronic age, the snags of wiring, the bundles of printouts, the careful inventories of neglect.

For the first time, Fitch notices something odd, that there is not one scrap of anything personal in this room, such as you’d expect in the office of every middle-aged career administrator she’d ever seen. No family photographs. No ornaments. Not even a dead spider-plant.

“It never happened, of course. Evanston kept promising that we’d start a project, but it was always next week, next month. And then I discovered that Evanston’s eyes had wandered…and wandered again. But by that time I couldn’t go back. I don’t think I could have borne the shame, then. I don’t think I could, even now. I left town, I had to. Made a new life for myself. I didn’t dare leave this job, though, I was stuck! What kind of references would that deceitful man have given me? And the school, before that? The closest I’ve been to Deringland in all these years is this office. And having to work in the same place as Bobby Honeypott, you know he’s here? Well, not everyone turned out as well as you, Elaine, that’s for sure. I wish Evanston had done something decent for once and got rid of him, but of course I was hardly in a position to complain.” Fitch perks up for a moment at the thought of a new connection in a frustratingly elusive case. “Now poor Evanston is dead, but I still don’t think I could show my face in Deringland again.”

At this, Janice Squearn collapses like a discarded marionette: Elaine leaves her seat, inches her way past shoals of detritus to Squearn’s side of the desk, and puts her arm round the cardiganed shoulders of her old teacher.

“Oh, Mrs Squearn…” She is surprised how bony and delicate she seems, like a tiny bird. “If there’s anything I can do…”

Janice Squearn now collects herself, pulls herself up, gently, but firmly, brushing away the younger woman’s arm. She now effects a personal transformation as remarkable as that of a caterpillar into a butterfly.

“No, my dear, I’m afraid there isn’t. In any case, perhaps it’s all for the best. But that’s enough about me. I’m sure you didn’t come here just to hear the ravings of a foolish old woman. Tea? Coffee?” Squearn turns round to a squirreled niche Fitch hadn’t before seen, containing a tiny kettle, a few boxes, and what looks like a small collection of very dirty cups. Fitch politely declines, picking her way once more to the more businesslike side of the desk.

“Well, yes, actually, Mrs Squearn, I’m here as…well, in my professional capacity.”

“I understand. And please, call me Janice.”

Squearn’s attempt at calmness is good, but perhaps a little too forced. Fitch remembers her old teacher as the very picture of grace under pressure, and imagines that she must be feeling a little ashamed, now, of her outburst, at letting go. Fitch feels she’s in two worlds, a little girl and a detective, both at once. To concentrate on the latter she breaks eye contact and fossicks around in her bag for her notebook and a ballpoint.

“You see, Mrs Squearn…Janice…Dr Bland’s death was probably just a heart attack, but I, we, need to know what everyone at the Institute was doing…where they were…when…”

“When Dr Bland died. Well, you’ll not have any worries on my score.” Squearn now seems to have regained her poise, the calm, polished waves of equanimity closing over the wreck of her past as if it had never set sail. But perhaps it’s all an act, perhaps, Fitch thinks, her presence in this mean little room has pitched Janice Squearn into the long-lost role of schoolmistress, a role she threw over so impetuously and forever regretted leaving. “Last night I was chairing a meeting of the Sutton-next-the-Sea Evening Women’s Institute.”

Fitch reflects that Janice Squearn’s new life will have had a couple of decades to have become established, and that after her humiliation, for that’s what it was, she’ll have filled every minute with activity. Just standing still would have been an admission of defeat. Fitch notices, quite suddenly, that the glitter in Squearn’s eyes, the defiant set of her jaw, reminds her of DI Sheepwool. It would be a mistake to see Janice Squearn frozen in time as a schoolteacher, preserved like a mermaid. Squearn, like everyone else, like time itself, moves on, in ways that museum specimens don’t, which can only look on with a kind of inanimate envy, or spite.

“But Dr Bland probably died much later,” Fitch interrupts, “in the early hours. I’m sorry to have to press you, but can you say what you doing…account for your time…until about dawn this morning?”

“I was just coming to that, Elaine. I was in bed. And neither asleep, nor alone. Between around two and five I was enjoying some…ah…relations with my partner.”

“Your partner?”

“Yes. After Evanston deserted me, I was desolated for quite a long time. Several years in fact. I ached with longing for my past life, my husband…and my children, none of whom I’ve seen since…since I left home. But after a while I met Frankie. Eventually, after a long while in which I learned to trust such matters, as sharing one’s heart, one’s feelings, we moved in together. There have been times in which if it weren’t for Frankie I think I might have gone quite mad.”

“I’m sorry, Mrs Squearn, Janice, can I have some details for…Frankie? We’ll have to corroborate your alibi. He lives at your address…?”

“Yes, of course. I’m sure Frankie won’t mind. Francesca Honiton is the secretary of the Sutton Evening Women’s Institute.”

Fitch is, unusually, lost for words. Janice Squearn’s eyes blaze fiercely in the shabby gloom of this office. “I haven’t asked about your circumstances, my dear. I see from your ring that you are married. I hope it is all going as well as you always wanted.” Fitch thinks warmly of Jason, as she does about once every five minutes, and her three gorgeous children, and, as ever, can’t even begin to imagine how anyone could want to change anything about any of them in any way whatsoever.

“A marriage is all about trust,” says Squearn. “I betrayed the trust of my own, and Evanston betrayed my trust in his turn. I don’t think I could ever trust a man again, nor expect a man to trust me. Indeed, I’m convinced that men and women are different species.”

Fitch feels wretchedly small. She opens her mouth to speak, but nothing comes out. She is cast back to her wedding day. A lovely, perfect white wedding, with Jason looking so handsome in his dove-gray tailcoat, her parents so proud, all her colleagues in uniform. And yes, the tiniest, teensiest regret at thinking, just as the photographer took another shot of her and Jason outside the church, whether her old schoolteacher might not have been invited, but crossing her off the list as she’d no idea how the long-lost Mrs Squearn might have been contacted.