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Fiction

Speaking ill of the dead

By The Sea: Part I, Chapter 7

Henry Gee 1 July 2007

www.lablit.com/article/273

I never expected to be actually discovering things. Totally new things. Sometimes it fills me with amazement, on the days when it doesn’t terrify me.

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 Seven

Sheepwool wonders which kind of interview is better: the one in which the interviewee says too much, or the one in which she says nothing at all. In Alex Beach’s lab, a mote of relative neatness in this efflorescently horrible place, she realizes that this is a false dichotomy. No, the most problematic interviews are those in which the answers are ambiguous. Or, worse still, in which the interviewee seems entirely, readily cooperative with the answers she gives to straight questions, but her eyes, her whole body, seem locked in a titanic scream of contradiction.

Dr Alexandra Beach seems to belong in this latter category. Sheepwool, who finds it hard to order the parallel thoughts that rattle round inside her brain into a coherent line of argument, wishes (not for the first time) that Fitch were here to do the talking. Any questions she asks seem to falter, half-done, into nothingness, and if there is one thing Sheepwool dislikes, it is incomplete sentences. But Beach is just there, impassive. Whether Beach is standing, or leaning, or sitting, all Sheepwool sees is a tall, voluptuous young woman who, in another age, and except for her eyes, blue-gray rather than brown, would have made a good model for Renoir. She has the same pale, clean limbs, the same curves, and, most pertinently, the same vacant expression. Yes, it’s her expression. That’s it, thinks Sheepwool. That’s what’s so, well…so disturbing. Perhaps some sympathy would be in order here. Here is a woman who lives in what passes these days for a haunted castle, who has gone down to the dungeons at some godless hour and stumbled over a body.

Vacant.

It’s a coping strategy, she knows. She looked like that once, not so very long ago. If Sheepwool softens her hitherto somewhat businesslike and yet abortive line of questioning, she might begin to get results.

“Dr Beach, I know it’s hard. Really, I do. You’ve had a terrible, terrible shock. And, as far as I know, no support. Would you like me, or DS Fitch perhaps, to arrange for some counseling? Someone you could talk to?”

Breakthrough.

Beach sits down on a squashy sofa in one corner of the lab, the sofa, with its coffee table cantilevered with journals, reprints and general paperwork, that would serve as a communal relaxation area for the lab’s three residents, were there to be three, and not just Beach, alone. No, not so much sits, but slumps, her empty eyes now populated with a fleeting wetness.

“Thank you, Inspector. That would be nice. And would you mind, please, if you called me ‘Alex’? I’ve only just got my PhD, you know.” A pause. A shy laugh. The hum of machinery in the background. “Sometimes I think I haven’t really earned it. Or that it’s so new they still might come along and take it away. Oh, this place…” Beach’s voice is the calm, assured contralto of a newsreader, but it is, Sheepwool suspects, merely a rainbow-skin of oil on troubled depths.

“This…place? The Institute, you mean?”

“Yes, Inspector, that’s exactly what I mean. When I simply hated it, the specimens, the crowding, the damp, the feeling that you couldn’t move anywhere without knocking something over. Well, that was easy. But now, now that I’ve been here a few months, it’s more difficult.”

“How so?”

“It’s hard to put into words, and I’ve never really tried, but I guess it’s like this. I am beginning to fall in love with it. You know, like those hostages, who fall in love with terrorists, or whatever?”

“Stockholm syndrome.”

“Yes, Inspector, that’s it. And now…now you’re here…do you know that you’re the only person I’ve had a real conversation with for weeks?” Beach is all smiles now, and talks, and talks, like a rescued castaway, and Sheepwool begins to think that perhaps the most difficult interviewees are in fact the most voluble. Beach talks of science, and of her fascination with the improbable variety and abundance of marine creatures, and of how little we know about them. And without even waiting to be prompted, Beach answers the question that she had asked Morrison.

“My job! Well, I’m just trying to learn about things called carnostomids, they’re a kind of marine worm. This place has the best collection of carnostomids in the world. Problem is, nobody really knows anything at all about them, so I am starting from scratch. At first I thought it was frightening, but now, well, I’m getting over it. Yes, it’s still frightening, but everything I find out about these things, every little thing, might be completely new. I’ve just had this idea, you know, that carnostomids aren’t adult animals, but larvae…”

“Larvae?”

“Yes, immature creatures. Babies. Things that might grow up into something else.”

“Do you have any idea what?” Sheepwool is now as far from any plausible line of questioning as Timbuktu. But to have Beach talking, even if too much, might be better than her not talking at all. Sheepwool admits that her classification of interviewee difficulty might require yet further revision. And as Beach talks, Sheepwool can cast a surreptitious eye over the journals and papers before them, on the coffee table. Her eyes take in some letters. A letterhead. She has seen that letterhead before. At first, she cannot place it.

“No! That’s just it. The larvae of marine animals can grow up into just about anything. That’s the problem, Inspector, and, really, the thrill of it all. You know, Inspector, when I got my PhD, I thought I’d be working on some problem that had already been mostly sketched out. I’d be working in industry, you know, refining things, filling in gaps, making drugs whose properties were already pretty well known, work slightly better. I never expected, not in a million years, to be actually discovering things. Totally new things. Sometimes it fills me with amazement, on the days when it doesn’t, frankly, terrify me.” Beach deflates again, her torrent stopped, her expression blank once again. It is as if a light has gone out.

“Alex?”

“That larvae thing. It came to me, that idea, moments before, before I…”

“Before you discovered Dr Bland?”

A long pause. Alex had mostly been talking into space, releasing a flood of words as if Sheepwool were only the catalyst, not an interlocutor. But now Alex turns her head, looks directly at Sheepwool, and, with an almost imperceptible movement, nods.

**********

“Of course I don’t mind, Detective Sergeant, come right in.”

The exceptionally tall, elderly man with the swirl of white hair (Fitch can’t help but think of an ice-cream cone) stoops, offers a winning smile and ushers her into his office. This is almost, but not quite, as small and cramped as Janice Squearn’s glory-hole. It does, at least, have a window, overlooking the sea. And that’s all it overlooks: there is no land, no foreshore to give it scale. Now after dark, the view is of utter blackness, or, rather, it is a view more audible than visible, for the surf can be heard to scour the cliffs directly beneath them. For an instant Fitch imagines she’s lost her moorings and is in fact on a ship far out at sea. Or it could simply be a tremor in the building. She holds on to the back of a chair, as if to steady herself. She must have let something slip, for the man proffers a solicitous arm and guides her to a simple, pine chair.

“Yes, Detective Sergeant, it can be somewhat disconcerting, can it not? Believe me, it is even more so in daylight!” His accent is foreign but unplaceable (Fitch knows from her dossier that he is originally from Sweden), but his English is as clipped as a box hedge. “One feels that it is a little, one might say, romantic? Up here, with nothing but my own thoughts and the great sea out of the window, I am on a voyage of discovery! Might I offer you some tea?” Fitch nods, palely, remembering at the last minute to murmur a thank-you. She decides to let Dr Lars Johansson make his own way into this interview.

“I am, however, directly above the kitchen. Sometimes the smell of chips on a Friday afternoon destroys my cheerful maritime fantasy, but one cannot have everything. And, believe me, I have quite a lot! I am blessed with, as you might say, independent means, so I can do what I like. Come and go as I please.”

“Were you…?”

“I am pleased to say not! No, I was not here when the unfortunate Dr Bland met his untimely end. No, I have been spending Christmas with my parents in Umeå, that’s in Sweden, you know, and arrived back only this morning.”

Fitch ticks the mental box marked ‘alibi’, this one should be easy to verify, and suppresses amazement that Dr Johansson, who looks to be at least sixty, has both his parents. But then, Swedes, don’t they live practically for ever? Not like her Dad, hacked to death by cigarettes before his fifty-third birthday. And her Mum, who is barely fifty-five but looks seventy, poor love.

“What do you do here, Dr Johansson?” Fitch asks as a way of making conversation, and immediately regrets it. For this is Dr Johansson’s cue to expound on his favourite subject, the marvellous diversity of creatures that live their entire lives inside barnacles, a subject for which he clearly has an obsessive love.

“Darwin, you are familiar with Darwin, yes?”

Fitch nods gamely. She remembers vaguely having heard of Darwin in biology lessons in school, when she wasn’t too busy making sheep’s eyes at Jason and giggling whenever the teacher mentioned sex.

“Ah! Darwin, like me, loved barnacles. His work on barnacles still stands as the definitive treatise. But about the societies, kingdoms, empires, inside the barnacles, the man had no knowledge! Imagine, had he been privy to such information, he could have based his ‘Origin of Species’ entirely on examples drawn from within the valves of his beloved barnacles.

“It is the barnacles and their little friends that keep me here. The Institute has possibly the best collections of the parasites and commensals of barnacles anywhere in the world. I would not be here otherwise. In this place.” His voice darkens for an instant, as if a small black speck has temporarily occulted the sun. Daylight is soon restored: “But enough of that! The kettle. See? It boils. We must have tea. Milk and sugar, yes?”

Fitch nods assent and, her equilibrium restored, decides to venture a toe into the conversation. “Pardon me for asking Dr Johansson, if it’s not too rude, but did you say ‘independent means’?”

“Not at all, Detective Sergeant. Not at all! You will know of course how this Institute is funded? None of the scientists who work in places like this receive any money from the Institute. It is, in fact, the other way round. They bring money from other sources, government grants, for instance, or universities, or philanthropic organizations, or even corporations, and buy time and space here, so they can use the Institute’s unmatched collections. This money pays all the support staff at the Institute, and keeps the building from falling down, inasmuch as it can…as anything can.” He laughs, Fitch thinks it polite to join in. They are, by now, both familiar with the precarious state of the Institute, perched on the very cliff-edge of an eroding coastline.

Johansson continues: “You did not, of course, imagine that it got much from visitors! This is what we in science call ‘soft’ money. But some money is softer than others, and I have the softest, or should that be the hardest? It is perhaps hard to say. For I am blessed with what is, I believe, called inherited wealth. My grandfather was a chemist who with my great-uncle founded Johansson and Johansson, which eventually came to be a very large and very profitable drugs company. It is still a private company, not quoted, and as a family member I am ashamed to say that I live off its profits. Although, I have to say, that these aren’t as great as they once were, and the company is currently being pursued by the jackals of the marketplace. One particular jackal, in fact.” Worry streaks his countenance. “Did you hear of a company called MagusPharm?”

Fitch confesses that she hasn’t.

“Few people have, outside the pharmaceuticals industry itself. It appears to have come straight out of nowhere. Nobody seems to have any idea how it rose to prominence, or on which product.” There is a pause. Fitch has a hard time reading Johansson’s face, but for an instant she could have sworn that she saw in it a flash of agony.

“But still, no matter, I have plenty of funds to indulge my modest cirripedophilia.”

Fitch has no idea what he is talking about. She sips her tea, and, putting it down on a corner of Johansson’s desk, decides to steer the conversation back to the shores of relevance.

“Dr Johansson, what were your impressions of Dr Bland?”

“Bland? Not much. One does not like to speak ill of the dead, but I confess I thought him foolish. He did little work of any scientific merit, and that long ago, and he tended to let the administration of the building slip. You know, Detective Sergeant, much as one appreciates this building as a picturesque folly, it is a death trap, and the Institute should really have moved to somewhere more secure years ago. I am amazed that the authorities haven’t forcibly closed it down. One reason I spend so much time here, rather than, oh, I don’t know, playing golf, is that I wish to research the Institute’s collections, and believe me, Detective Sergeant, these collections are priceless…before they fall into the sea. Bland should have been moving the Institute to a place more secure. He was not a bad man, far from it, he was always pleasant enough, but he was too easily distracted.”

“Distracted? By what?”

“By…well, there is no sense in being coy…by women. It was, if I might say so, his great failing.” Fitch has been here before, Bland’s form is well known to her. But suddenly she thinks of her conversation with Sheepwool, their brainstorm in the car before she almost ran over that toddler. Of how it was that Bland happened to be in his lab at an unaccustomed hour, and just up the hall from Beach.

“Do you think, Dr Johansson, that this…er…distraction…had anything to do with his death?”

“I could not possibly answer that, Detective Inspector. After all, I was not here!”

“But would it interest you know that when he died in his laboratory in the early hours of the morning, Dr Alex Beach was working just along the hall?”

A small fracture appears in the scientist’s polished poise.

“Yes, Detective Inspector. I regret to say, on reflection, that it should. Dr Beach is a pleasant young woman. And, now I come to think of it, Dr Bland did spend an inordinate amount of time pursuing her. I can understand why he might, but at his age, as at mine, one should exercise some decorum, should one not?”

Fitch senses that this rhetorical flourish marks the end of the interview, at least for now. She thanks Dr Johansson and rises to go. Just as she is about to gather her coat and bag, there is a soft knock at the door.

“Ah! Please excuse me, Detective Inspector.” Johansson rises and shambles for the door. “Nothing for ages, and then it is like Victoria Station in here!” The door opens to reveal the neat, middle-aged woman with the rather sour expression Fitch and Sheepwool had met alighting from a cab.

“Ah, Maureen! Please come in. This is Detective Sergeant Fitch. About this terrible news. Have you met?”

The woman mumbles something inaudible.

“We have met, but not actually introduced,” says Fitch.

“Allow me. Detective Sergeant Fitch, this is Dr Maureen Boynton, who is, like me, a visiting fellow of this Institute. Do you…have you…?”

Fitch, moving to the door, looks at the expression on Boynton’s face. The sourness is sharpened with what looks like urgency. And conspiracy. Whatever it’s about, Fitch thinks, she’ll have to find out later. Boynton enters as if Fitch had been nothing more than a stuffed animal in a glass case.

“That’s fine, Dr Johansson. I really must be going now. Thank you for your…”

The door closes behind her.

“…time.”

Really. Some people are so rude! And Johansson seemed such a nice person, very polite. Like something out of an old movie. No, it was that sourpuss, Maureen Boynton. She looked like she had to say something soon or she’d burst.

Fitch has hardly gone five yards along the narrow, shadowy corridor when she realizes that she’s left her purse in Johansson’s office.

**********

“Who else is on our list?”

Fitch pauses as she slips up into third and looks keenly around into the encroaching night that the yellow-white beam of the lighthouse seems powerless to penetrate, as if her own eyes can do any better. Her face looks ghastly, pallid in the beam, cut up into shards of darkness by the fractured illumination, her hair pale and stringy like the dead-men’s-fingers that is all that passes for seaweed on this part of the coast. Sheepwool is cast back to the shock of Pickled Lily, hair floating and awry in that horribly amniotic medium. Abruptly, Sheepwool turns away, looking through the windscreen at the blankness ahead, picked out by the car’s too-weak headlights.

“Just two, Ma’am. I checked in with Janice Squearn while you were with Dr Beach. There’s an American, a Professor Garrison Williams, and a Dr Heather Franks. Apparently, from what Janice told me, Williams got back from America last night, so we need to check his alibi. He sounds like a live one…”

“Hmm?” Sheepwool hears Fitch’s voice as if through static, or from a long way off.

“Well, Janice says he, that’s Williams, was due back yesterday, but didn’t actually show up. This means, she says, that Professor Williams probably went straight from Heathrow to the Dazed Haddock. And Ma’am, get this, that’s where he lives.”

“What? At the Dazed Haddock?” Sheepwool sits up, incredulous: Fitch’s voice swims back into focus. Perhaps Williams is one of those canonical Americans who’d look at a tumbledown ruin or, in this case, some seedy dive, and see only olde-worlde charm.

“I know. Unbelievable. A place like that. He’s a bit of a shark apparently. Of the pool-playing variety.” Fitch sounds disapproving.

“Is that a crime, Fitch?”

“No, Ma’am, it’s…well, Janice said he’s well in with Bob Honeypott, and you know what she thinks of him. And, well, you know what I think of him, and what Gerry Rammell, and, well, just about everyone else! Anyway, I thought we could go there now.”

“Good idea, Fitch. I think we deserve a drink.” Sheepwool turns to Fitch to read her expression, but Fitch’s face is now out of range of the Light. Only the set of her jaw is visible, reflected from the pale strip of the track.

“And what of Franks?”

“Ah. Well, Ma’am, she might be harder to pin down. Janice says that the last time she saw her it was December the twenty-first. Franks seemed in a great rush to leave the Institute. Janice says she wanted to get some idea of her plans, you know, when she was going to return in the New Year, just to write down in case anybody wondered, but Franks seemed distressed or worried about something, so…”

“So we have no idea of where Franks went, or when she might be back?”

“No, Ma’am, I mean, yes, I’m afraid so. There’s certainly been no sign of her.”

Sheepwool sits back, drawing a shroud around herself with her own thoughts, letting Fitch pilot the car, a tiny mote in this vast and active darkness. Like all city dwellers, she finds the intensity of the rural night threatening. She is a creature of light. Unlike Fitch, who seems born and bred to this murk, as sharp a driver at night as by day. Even if she herself still drove…even if, by day, she…

No, Percy. Keep your mind on the present.

So, what do we have? Still-life with corpse, by Peter Brueghel the Elder, at the very least, although she’d settle for Matthias Grunewald. The grisly extravagance of the Isenheim altarpiece would have suited the Institute nicely. But the corpse itself? Could be heart failure. In fact, could be anything. No obvious foul play.

So why are we interested? Because Bland was acting out of character. Why was he in the Institute at night? Nobody knows. Though she thinks Morrison knows something and isn’t saying.

And was it coincidence that Alex Beach was just yards away from Bland in his last moments, in that worm-casting of a cellar, surrounded by the purr of machinery (which would have driven Sheepwool round the bend) and the too-still air? She feels sure that the ever-reliable Fitch will be able to find rock-solid alibis for everyone, even this Williams person and the elusive Dr Franks. Of all of them, only Beach was there at the time.

That is, in fact, she thought, the only thing we know for certain.

And then, there’s Morrison. He has an alibi, too. Only…well, Sheepwool trusts him no further than she can spit.

Percy, she says to herself: it’s just a feeling. No more than that. There’s no crime in slime, she’d reminded Fitch (she warms to the memory). But this feeling nags her because it’s something she can’t place. She rummages in the heaving handbag of her mind, the outside world quite forgotten. Ah, that’s it. This goes way back, before she ever heard of Deringland, or the Institute, or Morrison.

It started on that school run, pieced together later, vicariously experienced. A car, zooming from right to left, carrying…what was it carrying? Machinery in Sheepwool’s head, buried beyond awareness, grinds into life. It seems like only a moment later when the rasp of a handbrake pulls her back into wakefulness.

**********

“How is it you live here, Professor Williams, here at the Haddock?” Fitch’s voice is high, strained, but makes it clear that the Dazed Haddock is a place she’d rarely want to visit, much less call home.

“Oh, Detective Sergeant, may I call you Elaine? Please, just call me Garry.” Williams flashes a big, cheesy all-American smile at Fitch and eases his frame into a more comfortable leaning position on the bar. He is standing, bottle of German lager in hand, while Sheepwool and Fitch perch on stools.

Sheepwool feels uncomfortable, exposed, here at the bar. She’d have preferred a table in some quiet corner. But quiet corners at the Haddock have an intensity of purpose which their occupants are often reluctant to share, swathed half in shadow, whispering furtively between themselves in nameless transactions, and glancing towards the bar with obvious resentment. Sheepwool feels as if she has a sign saying ‘police!’ written in flashing neon on her head. Only the prevailing gloom, softened by cigarette smoke, offers any kind of a shield. That, and the appalling noise, the ping and clang of the fruit machines; what sounds like a particularly lively pool tournament in the adjoining bar; and the juke box, provide a curtain against what would otherwise be an aggressive silence.

Sheepwool takes what solace she can in the jukebox. Hardly classical, but then again, nothing very much later than the mid-seventies, either. The sound of the juke is muffled, sodden, a result either of the acoustics of the pub, with their general conspiracy against easy conversation, or because the treble speakers have been shot as a result of three decades of playing ‘Smoke on the Water’.

It’s now playing ‘Hotel California’. The song’s atmosphere of enigma and loss strikes Sheepwool as apposite. It takes her back, and back, and back. She shakes herself once again into the present, but remains, for all that, detached, watching the drama of the world evolve, unseen, as if from an upstairs window.

Fitch, back half turned to her, is talking energetically to Williams, struggling to be heard against the ambient surge. Williams does not seem to find the atmosphere uncomfortable in the least. In contrast, he seems quite at home. He is lean and grizzled, in jeans and faded black leather jacket, face very pale and somewhat scarred beneath a full head of silver-gray hair. His eyes, beneath white brows, are pale blue and a little watery, but sparkle with a dangerous intelligence. Something about his face: he doesn’t look burned, exactly, but perhaps a lifetime spent in labs turns one’s complexion to driftwood. That, and smoking, Williams has a pack of Marlboros at his elbow and is never without a lit cigarette.

“Hey, well, you know, it’s a place. And cheap. Sure, I could’ve afforded to rent or even buy somewhere, but when I first got off the train and pitched up here, a couple of years back, I came here for a drink, and…well…. I never left. They do food here, and beer, and I like pool, y’know? And the surfing, here at Deringland. It’s just fine.”

“But the cold? And the fog?”

“It gets real foggy at Half Moon Bay, too. And inland, the woods, with those big, big trees and the moss just hanging down, like rags.” He laughs. “After that, the Institute is nothing to be frightened of. That mermaid though, Pickled Lily. She’s scary! Scares the living crap out of me. Wooooh!” He hams it up as a pantomime ghost. “Do you ladies want another drink?”

Fitch declines, regretfully. She drives a police car, she explains. Sheepwool nods a polite refusal, thinking that being a disembodied mind, watching the scene from far, far away, is sufficient excuse. From this distance she can see now, quite clearly, that at least some of Williams’ demeanor is an act of bravura. People confront their grief in different ways.

“I am sorry that you lost your wife,” she says. “And might I change my mind, Professor? I’d very much like a white wine spritzer.”

The change in Williams’ face is remarkable. His cheeks sink, his skin turns a weird, pale green. He stands straighter, but looks much older and exhales from every pore the memory of the stink of death. Fitch turns to Sheepwool, looking shocked, mouth open as if to say something that doesn’t quite emerge.

“My…wife?”

“Yes. I’m sorry. Terrible, terrible shock, losing her like that, just when you first returned to England.”

Williams crumples. His eyes flicker towards the bar. The barman seems not to notice, but to Sheepwool’s eyes, this nonchalance is entirely theatrical. “Let’s find ourselves a corner, okay?” Williams says.