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To what's submerged

By The Sea: Part I, Chapter 6

Henry Gee 24 June 2007

www.lablit.com/article/271

She just gazed and gazed at him with these big blue eyes like she’d been hypnotized. Don’t do it sister, I yelled on all telepathic channels

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 Six

The best view of the Institute, thinks Fitch, sliding the stick into second, and then third, is in the rear-view mirror, driving away. As for its inhabitants: well, her mind is fizzing with possibilities that she’s just dying to share with DI Sheepwool. Her boss, however, is actively silent, sunken into her seat, quite still, and apparently staring at nothing.

Fitch changes into fourth, then fifth, and she’s away. She decides to sublimate her frustration by concentrating on the driving, something she’s superbly good at, and which always gives her solace. At times like this, while she’s waiting for something to happen that might get her closer to some kind of resolution, she likes to remember the fun she’s always had on the advanced and defensive driving courses the force occasionally offers. Wonderful! The expression on Jason’s face when she does screaming handbrake turns in the supermarket car park; the admiring approval of Dean, her eldest, and at eleven, passionate about cars; the squeals of mingled terror and delight from Eric and little Bryony.

“Mum! You might get arrested! By the police!” Eric had said.

“Mum is the police, stupid.” Dean had replied, not entirely unreasonably. Fitch basks in the memory. She adores driving, but at work, at any rate, it’s a private pleasure. DI Sheepwool either hasn’t learned to drive, or has, but chooses not to: and whenever Fitch mentions anything about cars, Sheepwool either ignores her or changes the subject. It’s as if the entire subject is taboo. Strange. Oh, well, Sheepwool is not your usual Detective Inspector. Resigned, Fitch turns her attention back to the road ahead.

The wind has dropped now, the last ragged clouds and swirls of mist have gone, replaced by the kind of unearthly, clear blue sky usually seen only in brochures for ski-ing holidays. This blank blueness drops around the car on all sides, as the Institute and then the Deringland Light fall over the rear horizon and once again the two policewomen seem to be amid an apparently endless prairie of grass. Fitch doesn’t like this blankness of sky. It’s eerie, nightmarish. She longs for a cloud, even a small one, to break it up and give it scale. Her unease is short-lived, however, for she has to use all her driving skills to negotiate the sharp, scarcely-surfaced scree of the final, downward plunge of the track as it meets the main road. She stops, exhales, signals right, and feeds the car on the road towards Deringland. A moment later, Sheepwool speaks, but her first word seems completely meaningless.

“Magritte.”

“Ma’am?”

“That’s what occurred to me, when I saw this lovely blue sky. René Magritte. Surrealist painter. He painted perfectly clear skies, like this one, and then filled them with clouds shaped like everyday objects. Birds. Chairs. And then he gave very strange, teasing titles to the paintings. ‘Threatening Weather’.” Fitch has no idea what, if anything, she should say to this, so she pretends to concentrate on the driving, making a fuss about looking in the rear-view mirror. “Magritte always puzzled me,” continues Sheepwool. “But just now, after our visit, it all seems to make sense. The clouds, the skies, are just portraits of the mind. The clouds you carry around with you, inside your head.”

“Ma’am, I…” Art history, still less philosophy, did not figure very highly on the curriculum of Halberd Park High. Psychology, though, she studied that at University in Norwich (her first and only extended stay outside Deringland, if you don’t count family holidays and her honeymoon in Thailand). She liked psychology, and got a degree that was good enough for graduate entry to the Police, but there were depths and subtleties to it that always seemed just beyond her grasp, and her lecturers’ ability to explain. She preferred the crisp certainties of law. And, oh yes, driving.

“Oh, don’t worry about me, Fitch,” says Sheepwool, reassuringly, “just thinking aloud.”

Fitch knows her superior sufficiently well that this counts as an invitation to share confidences.

“I checked with Mrs Squearn, the administrator,” she says, not taking her eyes off the road, but all the same acutely aware that she rests in the full, lamp-like gaze of her superior. “Most of the scientists and staff were away from the Institute last night, Christmas holidays. Some of them will be back later today, I’ll have to go back later to nose around, check alibis and so on, but I reckon it’s a heart attack, Ma’am. Open and shut. But, you know, this Bland…”

“Hmm?”

“Well, you know I checked him out? His form? It turns out that he lured Mrs Squearn herself to the Institute. She gave up husband, kids, home, the lot, just for him. But he was all mouth and trousers. Never delivered. He sounds like a right old…”

“Your point is…?”

“Well, Ma’am, it’s like this.” She shuffles her feet nervously. Of course, she can always claim she is riding on the clutch. “When I saw Mrs Squearn I nearly had a heart attack myself! She was my old primary school teacher. I loved Mrs Squearn. But she left when I was in Year Six, just disappeared, no warning, and I never knew what happened to her. Nobody knew. And, goodness, she threw it all away, all because of Bland, and never went back. Even after he dumped her.” Fitch feels herself reddening with anger at the injustice of it. “All I had to do was turn up at the Institute office and it all came out, whoosh!”

“It sounds like she has ample motivation for getting back at Bland,” says Sheepwool. After a pause, she adds: “All the same, I don’t think she did.”

Fitch feels unwonted relief course through her arms and legs. She was afraid that Sheepwool would want to interview Janice Squearn herself, forcing Fitch into a cleft stick, between past loyalty and present duty. Now, light-headed, she feels she can play devil’s advocate.

“Ma’am? How so? Have you met her…talked to her?”

“No need. The question is this, if she had the motivation, why didn’t she act on it years ago? Why now? Of course, something could have pushed her over the edge, just in the past few days, but what? I think one can have too much opportunity, as well as too little. No, I think your first instincts are correct. Probably a weak heart. But that’ll be for Jim Levy and later the coroner to decide.”

More silence. The first buildings of Deringland appear: they seem to grow from the verges in disconsolate huddles.

“Ma’am, you remember our last case? Customs and Excise, Bob Honeypott and all that?”

“Yes?”

“Well, I’m sorry it never struck me before, but you know I said Bob Honeypott was in my class at school? Well, Janice Squearn taught him as well as me. So there was somebody who knew what happened to her. She said something, when I talked to her, about having to work alongside him at the Institute. How uncomfortable it was. I wish I’d known she was there, made the connection…she could have been really useful.”

“That case is not yet closed. Thank you, I shall mention it to Superintendent Methwold.” Sheepwool smiles. So encouraged, Fitch is sucked upwards into the dewy realms of hypothesis.

“Ma’am, I wonder if, you know, Honeypott and Squearn, maybe there’s a history. Could he have had a hold on her, somehow?”

“What? Blackmail? Could be. Money to keep him quiet, perhaps. About his little fiddles and finagles.”

“Yes, Ma’am, but do you think he…”

“Do you think he did away with Bland? Well, anything’s possible. But I don’t see why. More likely that Honeypott found it convenient to have Bland as a boss, given what seems to have been his casual style of management, allowing Honeypott to do all sorts of things on the quiet. No, I think that if anything, it was the other way round. Honeypott had a hold on Bland. It was in his interests to keep Bland alive. I don’t fancy his chances now there’s a new broom.”

The buildings of Deringland resolve from occasional broken teeth to a sullen, gray density. A few other vehicles join them, a parade constrained to funereal pace by the narrowness of the streets. Fitch is forced to stop behind a bus that blocks the entire High Street to admit a few teenagers and disgorge a small gaggle of pensioners. Just for a moment, she imagines the bus as a kind of time machine, sucking in children and spitting them out as old people, draining them of entire lives in mere seconds. To make it worse, she imagines that all of them, teenagers and senior citizens alike, have the same, fishy heads. Crikey, this isn’t like her at all. Not even after watching ‘Dr Who’, when she has to keep Bryony company behind the sofa, peeping out over the top so she doesn’t miss anything important. Fitch hopes she doesn’t have to visit the Institute too often. It does funny things to your mind.

Sheepwool, like the bus, has stopped, but it seems clear that she hasn’t finished.

“On which subject…”

“Ma’am?”

“I wonder, what did you make of our friend Dr Morrison?”

Fitch cannot help herself. “I thought he was just horrible! I, so sorry…”

“No need. I didn’t like him much either.”

“So, well, slimy!”

“Well, yes. But there’s no crime in slime…” And before she can stop herself, Fitch subsides into giggles, right there, in the traffic jam, behind the bus. Sheepwool cannot help but join in. Two detectives behaving like typists on a spree. Decorum is soon re-imposed, however, as the bus signals to pull out and the cortege continues through the town, but Fitch feels that an important bond has been forged between herself and her troubled, enigmatic superior officer.

“What I meant, Fitch, was that you have to look past all that. Beneath the surface. To what’s submerged.”

“What’s submerged, but how can you see that?”

“Exactly.”

“I’m sorry, Ma’am, I don’t…”

“Well, just think about our interview. When I asked him whether Bland was under stress, he didn’t answer the question. Didn’t try to lie, didn’t give some evasion, he flat-out didn’t answer. Now, I don’t know about you, but I reckon Morrison isn’t telling us something. Something important.”

“Like, he knows that Bland really was under stress?”

“Yes. But if so, why didn’t Morrison just say so?”

“Because…maybe…Morrison had something to do with it? With Bland’s death?”

“Well, yes, of course, it’s all speculation, but when you went to visit Mrs Squearn I took Morrison to see Bland’s body. He didn’t look shocked, surprised, nauseated, you know how people look when they see dead bodies.”

Fitch felt that this probably wasn’t the time to admit that dead bodies were sufficiently rare in Norfolk for her never to have seen one, in the flesh, so to speak.

“No,” continued Sheepwool, “if anything, he looked pleased. Just for an instant. And he tried to cover it up, I’m sure. But that’s how he looked.”

“Maybe he was no more pleased than Janice Squearn was, though? After all, Bland seems to have got up everyone’s noses. And anyway, Morrison was at home at the time. Just like Mrs Squearn was.”

“So he says. All we have, right now, is his word for it. Hers too, as a matter of fact.”

Fitch says nothing: she mustn’t let her fondness for Squearn and her dislike of Morrison get the better of her.

“In any case,” Sheepwool continues, “heart attack or not, we really ought to see this Alex Beach person. She discovered the body after all.”

“We only have Morrison’s word for that too, Ma’am!”

“Indeed. But I’m puzzled. From everything we know so far, doesn’t it seem odd that Alex Beach, who is the only person we definitely know to have been at the Institute last night…Morrison wasn’t lying about that…just happens to be a few doors down the hall from Dr Bland, just as he expires?”

“…and what was Dr Bland doing at the Institute at that time, anyway?”

“That’s also a very good question. I rather think that when you go back this afternoon, I’ll ride shotgun. I’d like to meet Alex Beach for myself. Sooner rather than later.”

Sheepwool is now sitting up straight, eyes bright. The car inches to the end of the High Street. Fitch turns left at the roundabout opposite the Three Kings. They make their way up the hill to the police station with the resolve, and something of the fear, of the lone gunslinger on his way to meet the noon train. It is January in Deringland, but that strangely calm and yet menacing blue light has something of the Midwest about it.

“Ma’am…. Bland…. Beach…. Do you think…?”

At that moment Fitch brakes hard, reflexively, as a small child runs into the road in front of the car and falls over. It is followed by a squat, brick-faced young woman, Fitch realizes it’s the same one who crossed the road in front of Woolworths on their way out that morning. Sheepwool and Fitch watch as the woman yanks the child onto the pavement and smacks it hard round the head, bathing it in a soundless torrent of abuse. The child gives a silent yell of pain.

Danger over, Fitch restarts the engine and looks round at her boss, to see if she’d been hurt by the sudden stop. Sheepwool has turned an ashy white, entirely drained of colour, as if she’d aged twenty years.

She looks the same as she had done when she first saw Pickled Lily, and Fitch had, gently, to steer her away.

“I try not to think, Fitch. Not too much. Not if I can help it.”

**********

Deringland Railway Station is a mausoleum to a past which never quite arrived. Spires poking through a January fog like a gaunt arm trying to shake itself free of ghosts, it was built for an earlier, more optimistic age. An age when the railway was meant to bring tourism to Deringland, and with it the comfort and civilization that was the high-water mark of Victorian England. Hence the facade of enamel, beetle-shiny in buff and blue; the ornate buttresses, the steeply-pitched roof, wedding-cake colonnades, battlements and turrets that would look overdone in Disneyland, all that once bade welcome to the metropolitan seeker after the refreshing, healthful breezes of north Norfolk.

The boom was short-lived, though, a rosebud consumed by mildew, snuffed out by economic recession in the 1880s. And because of a feeling that whereas visitors were something Deringland badly needed, they were not always what it wanted. What the seeker so often found was a thin veneer of enforced charm and jollity beneath which lay the hollow-faced poverty of a remote region in long-term decline; whose breezes brought icy knives more often than refreshment, these alternating with unpredictable, fog-bound chills that could last for days, even weeks; and whose custom was greeted with embalmed, fish-eyed smiles devoid of warmth.

Tourists left Deringland with the sensation, rarely articulated, that it was always cold. Even on those rare, blessed days of July, when the wind dropped and the fog cleared, and when the Sun stood high in the South, baking the backs of those who, on the West Promenade, would sit on the plentiful municipal benches and gaze to seaward, a passage into shadow, perhaps behind a building or in the lee of one of the crab-boats pulled up on the beach, or when the Sun would disappear behind a scrap of cloud, would create a chill which always seemed more profound than merited by the moment: a chill that would run, like mercury, deep into the bones, affecting one far longer than one could imagine for such a transitory phenomenon. Nobody said it at the time (indeed, nobody would say it now), but Deringland played host to an active kind of cold, a cold that deterred all but those hardy few accustomed to the region’s natural state, seals, and bitterns, flat salt marshes bounded by vertiginously wide beaches of shingle uninterrupted by any overtly human construction. Certainly not one as profligately, as pathetically, ornamented as Deringland Railway Station. Few tourists visited Deringland more than once.

Therefore, and as if in acknowledgement of its fundamental uselessness, Deringland Station now welcomes far fewer trains than its structure would suggest, its large but deserted ticket hall; its small news kiosk, which never seems to be open; its waiting room, until recently the haunt of indigent youth and drug addicts and now boarded up. Indeed, over the Christmas holidays it has welcomed no trains at all. The first train of the New Year arrives just after sunset in the afternoon following Bland’s very private, Deringland death, and carries a handful of passengers. The clear, unearthly blue of the day has faded to a woollen gray, and now black, as clouds once more congeal upon the town.

The few passengers alight and disappear, faceless, coalescing with the seeling night. All except one, a small, fussy middle-aged woman struggling with a roll-along suitcase almost as large as she is. On the Station’s cobbled forecourt she waits for a cab, reckoning that even here, one will arrive to meet the train and tout for custom, as reliably as vultures gathering over a recent kill. But the post-Christmas torpor, like the fog, always takes longer to lift than one thinks, so it takes ten or fifteen minutes or so for the rust-pocked Peugeot estate that is currently Deringland Cabs’ only vehicle to arrive. The driver seems cheerful enough; in response to which the prospective passenger chokes back the several acid comments she’d been brewing as a way to stave off the damp, the cold, and the boredom of waiting. Moreover, and not a little disconcertingly, the driver knows the passenger’s destination without even having to ask.

“The Institute? Sure. Can’t have you walking all that way on a night like this, with all that lot to lug around!” The driver, a big, round man, balding, with sandy hair and a moustache that makes him look like the Carpenter’s Walrus, nods at the enormous bag. He gets out of the car and heaves it into the back with practiced ease, then opens the passenger door for his fare. The woman smiles weakly, as if smiling is a habit in which she does not usually care to indulge, and lacks the practice to do it with any confidence.

The car grumbles out of the forecourt and onto the road, taking a left, down the hill and into town. At length it passes the police station on the right, thereafter taking precisely the same course as that followed by Fitch and Sheepwool. The late-afternoon vista could hardly be more different. Mist and blackness obscure almost everything from view. Today is half-day closing, so all the shops are blank and shuttered. The street lamps of Deringland are widely spaced, and many do not work at all, turning the short journey into a voyage in space between scattered stars, each surrounded by a foggy penumbra like a halo of comets seen from an immense distance. It is barely four p.m., but it feels like midnight.

None of this penetrates the exhausted, shrouded mind of Dr Maureen Boynton, a Visiting Fellow at the Lowdley-Purring Institute, currently on sabbatical from the University of Leeds, and who has just returned from a conference in the United States. It had been an awful trip. Just awful.

Dr Boynton has been a regular attendee at the annual meetings of the American Association for Algal Ecology for almost twenty years. The AAAE is a touchstone, a marker for her year, and, being a spinster with no immediate family (at least, none she’s prepared to tolerate), the thought of the AAAE keeps her going through the dismal hole that is Christmas. Come the second or third of January she jets away for a week of collegial pleasantries, interesting lectures, a week during which she can review ongoing collaborations and forge new ones, what her younger colleagues, over-fond of pushing the present participle into uses for which it was not intended, would, no doubt, call ‘networking’.

The American academic schedule means that the best time to hold a conference is in the first week of the New Year. The academic semester has yet to begin, and algal ecologists are less likely to be doing fieldwork than would be the case in the summer or fall. Perhaps a greater consideration, Boynton thinks, is that hotel block bookings immediately after Christmas are cheap. Algal ecology, after all, does not rank among the most conspicuously well-funded of disciplines. Indeed, Boynton reflects that she tends to go to AAAE as part of her annual holiday, funding it from her salary, grants for attending such conferences being hard to come by.

Winter conferences are all very well if they are in places that are pleasant, or at least pleasantly warm, with opportunities for field trips (Dr Boynton is an accomplished scuba diver). Past highlights have included Miami, Puerto Rico, New Orleans, Santa Barbara and, on one memorable and delightfully expensive occasion, Honolulu. But this year? They say that travelling hopefully is better than to arrive, but to have the culmination of a trip much anticipated, much cherished even, take place in a motel on the outskirts of Pittsburgh? And not even a very nice motel: the detritus of Christmas having been only partially cleared away by the over-stretched and inexperienced staff, it was cold, damp and overcrowded. In the barely moving check-in queue on arrival at the motel she got sneezed on by an editor from Nature who had imported a heavy cold which, after three days, had infected the entire conference.

When she had finally managed to convince the troglodyte at Reception that she really had booked, and had stormed off with her key to find her room with “Have A Nice Day!” ringing in her ears (“I have other plans,” she growled to herself through clenched teeth) she found her room to be shabby, if not actually filthy, with air-conditioning set to maximum volume and arctic temperature, and which could not be altered.

It got worse. The conference facilities of what the AAAE delegates, thrown together in a kind of Blitz Mentality, had begun to refer to as the ‘Bates Motel’, might, on a good day, be rated as highly as ‘inadequate’. Her own talk on the epifauna of the kelp forests of the Rockall Trough…well, she shuddered with shame and chagrin. That oaf on the projector who muddled the CDs…and her laptop that kept breaking down…

Oh dear. Best put such things down to experience.

The cab chugs through Deringland and out the other side, climbing the eastward hill, streetlamps fading altogether into what seems like intergalactic darkness.

But perhaps every cloud has a silver lining. For she’s returned with a nugget of information. Disturbing information. Something she really ought to tell Lars Johansson as soon as possible. Whether she should tell Alex Beach, too…well, that’s something she’d have to think about. Lars would know what to do.

She’d escaped the Bates Motel for a quiet lunch at a Chinese restaurant in Pittsburgh with a colleague, Professor Britta Sonnenschein of the University of Oregon, with whom she’s currently preparing a paper. Although Boynton is spending a year at the LPI, living in a room barely better than the one at the Bates Motel, she tells herself that she’s at the Institute for the reference collection of kelp hauled from the North Atlantic by the Spaniel expedition, and nothing more. As for the Institute itself, she loathes it and can’t wait to go home to her neat little flat in Harrogate. However, she cannot quite understand why she seems so reluctant to tell Sonnenschein where she’s currently located, as if she’s ashamed of it.

But the truth will out, and the effect of casually slipping in the words ‘Lowdley’, ‘Purring’ and ‘Institute’ into the conversation, while they’re waiting for the Dim Sum trolley to arrive, is disconcerting.

Now, Boynton would be the first to admit that she and Sonnenschein make an unlikely pair. Whereas she is small and neatly dressed, Sonnenschein is blousy and, frankly, obese; whereas she has nondescript hair on the verge of graying, and somewhat sallow skin, Sonnenschein has wild masses of hair the colour of mango chutney and a complexion that supermodels would die for; whereas she disappears easily into a crowd without raising a ripple, Sonnenschein dominates a room and, in the words of her devoted astrophysicist husband, is a ‘walking focus of entropy increase’. If asked to summarise Sonnenschein in an epigram, Boynton would say she’s a pre-Raphaelite model gone to seed, gloriously. But despite their differences, they have been collaborators for more than a decade, and Boynton counts Sonnenschein as one of her few, close friends, almost a confidante.

This is why her reaction to news of the LPI is so peculiar. Sonnenschein, who is a diabetic and has been rifling through her disordered purse in search of insulin, stops as if caught in a flashlight, looks up, and says “Morrison!” with as much drama as if she’d said “Nevermore!”

“Morrison? He’s the Director…”

“For sure he is, Maureen! And the rest!”

“The rest? Of what?” Boynton is puzzled. The question hangs in the air for frustrating seconds as the Dim Sum trolley draws alongside their table. The waitress receding, Sonnenschein plays Earth Mother and dishes up for both of them.

“You should watch that one, Maureen. That’s all I can say.” Sonnenschein’s arrestingly emerald-green eyes sparkle with conspiratorial mischief.

Boynton laughs, a shrill and nervous sound that is rarely heard, perhaps mercifully so, as it sounds like a small skylark being sucked, very politely, into a jet engine. Sonnenschein looks around the restaurant stagily as if to check they’re not being overheard, bundles of coppery hair loosening with each turn of her head. Now she leans over the table as if to offer a confidence, revealing a mountainous, flawlessly white cleavage beneath her loose, Indian-print dress. Boynton thinks that the entire restaurant, which has the size and character of an aircraft hangar, would have no trouble overhearing, had it wanted to.

“You remember I told you about that conference I went to in Atlanta? Drug discovery and natural products? ‘Secrets of the Sea’, it was called. Not really my scene, but, hey ho, a girl has to make a living…”

Boynton nods her assent.

“Yeah, well, it was just full of suits. More like Wall Street than any conference I’ve ever been to.” Boynton imagines how Sonnenschein couldn’t help but have stood out in such company, like a pole-dancer at a funeral. She suppresses a smirk. “But there was this one guy, little guy, couldn’t help noticing, because he only came up to my chest. Got fed up of him staring, frankly. Anyway, he was the most suited-up of the lot. Quite the dandy, he thought himself. Don’t want to be talking out of turn, Maureen, but that was Morrison. And when I heard his full name, well…”

“His full name is Marion Morrison. Why…”

“Don’t you get it? What kind of a guy has a name like that?”

“What’s wrong with it?” Boynton confesses herself nonplussed.

“Oh, nothing’s actually wrong with it. It’s just that nobody is born with a name like that. Not these days.” Sonnenschein looks at Boynton’s confused expression and laughs. Reaching over the table, she pats Boynton’s hand.

“Oh Maureen!” Sonnenschein puts on a voice of affectionate exasperation. “‘Marion Morrison’ was the real name of a Hollywood actor. ‘Stagecoach’? ‘True Grit’? With me now?”

“So what? If…”

“Sure, that could be his real name, but I bet it isn’t. I’m only saying this because you’re only there a few months and it’s clear you don’t much like it…

“Me? I…”

“Hey, Maureen, this is me you’re talking to! Sure you don’t. But this Morrison is a front. A phoney. And you know what? He was acting the real big shot at this meeting, giving it the full John-Wayne swagger, chatting people up, taking them out to dinner, cocktails, throwing parties. Like he had money to burn. I kept asking myself, whose money was it?” Maureen had to admit that it sounded strange. Staff at small, provincial research institutes, even private ones, rarely had an entertainment budget that would stretch further than a bottle of warm chardonnay and a few cheesy dips.

“At first I didn’t think much of it. After all, he wasn’t the only one. Some of these big-pharma types might as well be hedge-fund managers for the money they throw around. But then I was at the bar one night, waiting for Harvey, I think: we were going to discuss that East Pacific Rise idea I told you about…” Boynton nods in recognition of a mutual colleague and another possible collaborative project.

“And there was Morrison, staring at some young girl’s tits, which he couldn’t help doing, as she was a lot taller than he was, and telling her like some wise-guy that as her doctorate was so good, she should come and work at his place on…what was it now? Ah yes, ‘carnostomids’. So there am I putting two and two together, and recalled the ‘Voyage of the Spaniel’ from some history-of-science course I taught years and years ago. So, naturally, I eavesdropped.

“He said he had plenty of money from some set-up called MagusPharm and he could easily take her on for a postdoc, if she wanted. Well, that name, MagusPharm, kept coming up at this meeting, you know? It’s some new pharma company that’s made it big, though nobody really knows how or why, and has scared the shit out of the established players. And yet that’s the company that seems to be raining money on this Marion Morrison character. But that’s not what struck me most.”

There was a pause, as if Sonnenschein were trying to recreate the scene clearly in her own mind before passing it on. “Now, Morrison always seemed to be schmoozing with some young girl or another, but I got the impression that they all thought he was a bit of a clown, never took him seriously. Not this one, though. She seemed to be easy meat. Sure, she was no waif, tall, Cindy-Crawford-curvaceous, you know? But she just gazed and gazed at him with these big blue eyes like she’d been hypnotized. Don’t do it sister, I yelled on all telepathic channels, you know? Turned my world-famous fempathy up to the max, but then Harvey arrived and I never saw her again.”

The sound of the cab’s tires scrunching on gravel jolts Boynton back to the present. She pays off the taxi driver; the cab, graying in the deepening shadow, scrunches off down the track. After the fug of the cab, which smelled vaguely of old tobacco and wet dogs, the sea breeze is quickening. The Institute, illuminated by the slow pulse of the Deringland light, looms massively before her in the darkness. The sea, invisible from here, makes its presence felt in the low but wide-screen deep-pink noise of surf, and a smell which Boynton finds irresistible, casting her back, if she lets it, to happy memories of a lost childhood, long ago. She wonders if she became a marine biologist as a way of retracing her steps back to that childhood idyll. As a way of lessening the pain that came after: her parents’ horrible divorce, her mother’s suicide, her father’s undignified, remorseful death from Alzheimer’s and pneumonia. Useless to speculate, she thinks, setting her head high and dragging the roll-bag over the gravel towards the front door.

Perhaps it is the effort of having to haul the luggage that prevents her from looking around, from noticing that a police car stands on the drive closest to the doors. Two women are emerging from the car. One is tall, willowy, with a rather abstracted look, as if her mind spends most of its time on some remote plane. The other is shorter, a smiling face framed with blonde curls. It is this woman who intercepts her.

“Hello there...before you go in…I’m Detective Sergeant Fitch, Norfolk Police. I have some bad news, I’m afraid.”