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By The Sea - Part I, Chapter 8

Henry Gee 7 July 2007

www.lablit.com/article/278

She is lost to the realms of science, bruises easily on contact with reality

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 Eight

The corner in which Sheepwool, Fitch and Williams now find themselves is dark and smells faintly of something unpleasant that a bottle of bleach hasn’t quite managed to dispel. They are in an alcove, almost completely enclosed by high and grimy stained-glass partitions, at a square table of worn planks, sticky to the touch with the detritus left by too many under-age Saturday-nighters. Fitch and Sheepwool sit on one side, Williams on the other. Sheepwool has a window on the world here, she can see the bar, but feels enclosed, secure. She wonders if she was a cat in a former life. Illumination comes from a sconce high on the wall, throwing faces into shadow but hands into the spotlight, infusing all and any gestures with a significance they perhaps do not deserve. In this half light, Williams unpeels his life before them, the ageing surf-dude image now put aside, his hands like puppets in a child’s toy theater.

“I’m fifth-generation Californian, never left the States until I was twenty-one and came to England on my first post-doc. Thomas Hunt Morgan was my idol, ever heard of Morgan? No?” The policewomen shake their heads. “Invented genetics. But his first love was marine biology. Worked his summers at Moss Landing, California, worked on how little animals like hydroids can grow themselves whole new bodies from just a piece.”

“Like worms, when you cut them?” says Fitch, helpfully. Sheepwool wishes she had Fitch’s ability to plunge in, without shame, with all the seeming naiveté of a small child, or by playing the dumb blonde. That’s an act, too, of course.

“Yeah, kind of. Well, when Morgan retired from genetics he went back to studying regeneration full-time. I’m following his footsteps. Here, now.” Williams’ words scrabble for the present, but his eyes tell a different story, of a career that scaled the heights, of amazing advances in genetics at CalTech and at Berkeley, with enormous teams of scientists unlocking the deepest secrets of heredity: teams orchestrated and conducted by his own vision. Of a career that might have secured a Nobel, were it not for a black dog at his heel. Sheepwool had read the dossier Fitch had compiled – of course she had – but only she had read between the lines. It had not occurred to Fitch, Deringland born and raised, how incongruous it was for a man like Williams to close an illustrious career in a crumbling research institute at the ends of the earth. But Sheepwool, like Williams, is a fugitive, an exile. She knows what that feels like. She and Williams, she thinks, seem, by instinct, to have reached an understanding.

“It’s more than footsteps, isn’t it, Professor?”

Williams recoils slightly, as if in fear. “Footsteps? Well, yeah, I suppose. You see, my wife, Beverly, came from these parts. I met her in Cambridge, when I was a postdoc. She came back to California with me. She was with me the whole time.”

“Beverly?” In this one word Sheepwool conveys a lifetime of meaning. Of the lists of young female research students, research assistants and colleagues commemorated on the notches of the Williams laboratory couch while Dr Beverly Williams was away, and yet faithful; of the remarkable rate of accidents, some lethal, in and around the Williams lab over the course of three decades, all of which befell these same female associates, and investigated by boards of inquiry which never actually managed to reach firm conclusions; of the glittering prizes which, late in life, eluded Williams and his circle.

“Yeah. Beverly. I promised her when we married that we’d eventually come back to England. Well, we did. But not long after we came back she…she…”

Sheepwool resists the temptation to complete his sentence, but instead starts another. “So, Professor Williams, if I might clarify: when you came to England you didn’t live above the pub immediately, as you said. That came later. After your wife died.”

Williams hangs his head. “Yeah. Oh hell. I’m sorry. It’s just, you know, when something like that happens, you just try to paper over the cracks, reinvent yourself. Backtrack to that fork in the path. The road not taken, y’know?” Fitch looks up now, mouth pursed, eyes moist. Sheepwool can see the name of Janice Squearn in her eyes. Sheepwool feels a tug of sympathy towards this tortured man. She suppresses it now. She is, after all, on duty.

“But it was horrible, horrible. We hadn’t been back here for more than a few months when Bev wakes up in the night, we were renting a house along the coast, real pretty, and tells me that she’s pregnant.”

This is a revelation that even Sheepwool doesn’t expect. The clink of the bar, the clank of the one-armed bandit, the woolly throb of the juke box, all fade into the sweat-stained wallpaper.

“ ‘Pregnant?’ I say. ‘Bev, baby, that’s not possible’, I say. Look here, ladies, if I can be frank: we had a good sex life. Something about the atmosphere here made it better. More urgent. Like, fateful, as if something was gonna come along and take it all away. But, damn it, I’m quite a lot older ‘n Bev, and she always kept herself in good shape, but she was fifty-five, post-menopause. But no, she says, she’s done the tests and everything. I’ll never forget her, that night. She broke out into a sweat and looked at me with those big brown eyes. Eyes you could just fall into, y’know? Sometimes I wake up in the night and see Bev’s eyes. That’s why I like to live above a pub. Good access to liquor when you need it, y’know?” Sheepwool has a jarring flashback to Methwold. Eyes as bottomless wells of pain.

“So, that night, when she told me, I came over to her and held her, and held her again, until she stopped crying and fell asleep. We never exchanged another word. She threw herself off the cliffs next day. After a few days, and the police investigation, the hounding, I moved in here. It was Bob’s suggestion. He fixed it up for me.”

“Bob? Bob Honeypott?” This from Fitch.

“Yeah. He was real nice to me. Genuine, you know? Not like some.”

“Some?” Sheepwool again.

“Yeah, okay, on the level, that klutz Bland.” Williams sits up straight, his shaggy brows joining into a frown. “Some friend he was. He just ignored me. Shunned me like I had some disease. When you told me he’d died, I don’t deny it, I was pleased. I’d’ve been first in line to throw him off the cliffs too, after what I’d been through.”

“Did you, though, Professor Williams? You were in Deringland at the time. Didn’t you arrive yesterday afternoon? We’d need to eliminate you from our enquiries.”

“Oh, shit. I haven’t yet checked in at the Institute. Poor Janice! When I got back I was up all night drinking with Bob. After closing time we went to his flat. It’s above that funky shop, y’know, ‘Secrets of the Sea’?” Fitch looks at Sheepwool as if to interject, but Sheepwool halts her with an incremental gesture as if to say that yes, this is another link, but in a different chain. “But Inspector, do you suspect that Bland was…murdered?”

“At present, Professor, we have an open mind. At least until the autopsy. And there will need to be an inquest.”

“I see. Anyway, Bland had it coming to him. After Bev died I saw it all. There was some kind of triangle going on. Bland was pursuing a young postdoc at the Institute, one Alex Beach. Nice girl, very dedicated. Bit ditzy, though, I got the impression she didn’t know which way was up most of the time. But she kept rebuffing him. I had the impression she was spoken for, though I don’t know if that was a front to put Bland off. She was real cut up about it though. Came to me for advice. She did some work for me, you know, a bit of tech stuff. I came on like the father-figure. You know, I reckoned she needed it.”

“Yes, Professor. But don’t triangles have three corners?”

“Huh? Oh, yeah. Bland got his come-uppance all right. He was being chased by Heather. Oh, Heather!” For the first time, Williams laughs. It’s a big, fruity sound that would, in any other part of the world, make the sun come out on contact.

“Heather?”

“Heather Franks. Another postdoc. Have you met her yet?”

“She’s next on our list,” says Fitch.

“Well, ladies, there you have a treat in store. A very determined…uh…person, is Heather. She was chasing Bland. But Bland was chasing Alex. Quite the carousel. Or, as you Brits might say, a lobster quadrille.”

**********

“The story so far,” declares Sheepwool, pouring coffee from the brown-choked jug at the corner of their brown-choked office. Neither Fitch nor Sheepwool have much stomach for police canteen coffee. Even when they’d had a canteen. Sheepwool prefers a cup and saucer, but gives Fitch hers in a stained mug bearing a bold pink-and-yellow decal advertising that the drinker is the ‘World’s Most Marvelous Mum’. At the close of day, Fitch’s mind is indeed maternally occupied. She’d texted Jason to ask if he could collect the kids and dig something out of the freezer for their tea. Only now, a moment belatedly, does she look up at Sheepwool, now craning over her, literally her superior, and forces a guilty smile. She knows what she must look like. Pasty, lined, as crumpled as her suit. It’s been a long day.

“Ma’am?”

Sheepwool takes her cup and saucer, pure white, and perches on the edge of her desk. Fitch has noticed that Sheepwool is ill-at-ease in a chair, fidgety, as if sitting is a painful activity that compels one to get up and move around. Ah, she thinks, we Mums know that sensation, and it is purely physical. If only she’d toned up more after Bryony had been born. It occurs to her, then, that she has absolutely no idea if Sheepwool has ever had children. Sheepwool’s desk, unlike hers, shows no sign of personal adornment. No family photos. Holiday snaps. Just like Janice, then…But now does not seem the right time to inquire about such things. Not when Sheepwool seems to have been seized with a demonic energy. A second wind. Like a foxhound on the trail.

“Thoughts, Fitch? It’s been a busy day. But you know what they say about first impressions.”

Fitch takes a little time to think it over. Sheepwool sips her coffee and grimaces at its bitterness. “It just keeps going round and round in my head, Ma’am, ‘Bland and Beach’, ‘Bland and Beach’, like they’re a holiday company. Like they’re joined at the hip. I mean, Ma’am, why was Bland in the lab at three in the morning? Why is anyone in the lab at three in the morning? Me, I’m always at home in bed!” Cuddled up against Jason’s broad chest, she adds, silently. She wishes she was there now.

“Following the passions of science?” Sheepwool suggests. “That’s certainly why Beach was there.”

“Okay, granted, but people keep telling us, don’t they? Janice and that Dr Johansson told me, and Williams told the both of us, that Bland wasn’t all that interested in science. He was more interested in Beach, so…” Fitch adds it up. Sheepwool does not intrude on her calculations.

“Could it be, Ma’am, that Bland and Beach arranged to meet then, for some…oh, I don’t know…rendezvous…and either Bland had a heart attack, which seems most likely, or Beach…killed him?”

Sheepwool smiles. “It’s the best we have yet, Fitch. Assuming it was a murder, which we don’t know. But I think it was a genuine coincidence. Yes, Bland was chasing Beach, and Beach didn’t want to be chased, but something our lonesome cowboy said in the pub sticks in my mind. Now, I think Williams is a lousy liar…”

“Yes! All that stuff about moving straight to the pub when you knew his wife had died. How did you…?”

“…but he seems to be an excellent judge of character. You haven’t talked to Beach, and I have, and she is, how did he put it, ‘ditzy’? Her mind seems everywhere at once. Lost to the realms of science. Bruises easily on contact with reality.”

“But maybe, Ma’am, she was in shock? Or could she have been putting on an act?”

Bless you, Fitch, Sheepwool thinks to herself. Don’t we always put on an act? Every minute of every day? As she often has cause to remind herself, giggly dumb blondes don’t get to be detective sergeants.

“Hmm. Yes, Fitch. That’s a point.” Fitch, encouraged, retrieves another scrap from her day.

“And, Ma’am, oh yes, before I forget. There’s Morrison, isn’t there?”

“Morrison,” says Sheepwool. Her smile fades. “What about him?”

“Yes, well, silly me, when I left Johansson’s office, I bumped into that Maureen Boynton woman. You know, the one who turned up in a cab, just when we did?”

“Yes, thank you, Fitch: we’ll have to interview her, too.”

“Well, Ma’am. She just barged past me into Johansson’s office and slammed the door in my face. She was really keen to tell Johansson something, just bursting with it. I was about to leave them to it, come and find you, when I realized I’d left my bag in the office. Notes, purse, the lot.” Her face pinks with the memory. “So I go back to the office but something makes me pause at the door. I didn’t knock, but I listened closely. Johansson and Boynton were having a conversation. Quite loud it was, and, do you know, it was all about Morrison?”

“Say on, Fitch.”

“Boynton was telling Johansson that she’d come back from some conference, where someone had told her that Morrison was being paid a retainer from a drugs company called MagusPharm. Far more than he would be getting as a Director of a small private museum. This stuck in my mind, because Johansson had told me that his drugs company, a private firm called Johansson and Johansson – he’s part of the founding family and very rich, or so he told me – was being threatened with take-over by that same company. So, anyway, that’s when I knocked, went and grabbed my purse, and ran for it.”

Sheepwool has turned parchment white. She stands, like a tableau, coffee cup halfway to her mouth. Small dots of pink appear at her cheeks, and then she unfolds, like a blooming flower, and, slowly, a smile dawns on her face, as if illuminated from a window high in the nave of a Church.

**********

Fitch drops Sheepwool at the door of her apartment block, waves her goodnight, and zooms off into the thickening fog. Just time to read Bryony and Eric their bedtime story, Fitch says, something about Harry Potter and the Temple of Doom, or the Geranium of Fear, or something.

Nick would have done the same thing, if…when…

Right there, in the tall lobby, in the darkness by the mailboxes, she is immobilized, caught in a vice of dry, wracking, sobs. It always gets her like this, at the end of the day. She is grateful to Fitch for taking her home, as she does most days, but the combination of the drive and Fitch’s family chatter is sometimes too hard to bear.

But the thought of walking home through the foggy darkness is worse. Perhaps, when the days get longer, she’ll walk herself home, if there is any season in Deringland other than winter.

Avoiding the dubious invitation of the elevator, she clatters up the stairs to the comfort of her flat. Oh, to shuck off these shoes!

**********

Later still, in bed, in Winceyette pyjamas and bifocals, she puts down her book, turns off the light and stares at the ceiling. She hears the swish of the surf, much gentler now after last night’s rages, and when her eyes have accommodated, sees the cheerless dim swell of yellow street lamps through the foggy murk, and the swags of the curtains drawn part-way across the window.

It all clicks into place now. She closes her eyes. That’s what she’d seen in Beach’s lab, a short letter confirming that funds had been approved for the postdoctoral fellowship of Doctor Alexandra Susan Beach, administered through the Trustees of the Lowdley-Purring Institute. And the letterhead?

MagusPharm SA of Zurich, with offices and facilities in Cambridge, England; Mountain View, CA; Trenton, NJ; and Guangzhou, PRC.

It’s not Beach and Bland, Fitch’s holiday company (Sheepwool smiles inwardly, she can practically hear the TV adverts). No, it’s Beach and Morrison, but doing what? Not holidays, certainly. But now, Percy, get this: Morrison was certainly cagey about what Beach worked on, but he must have known. Must have. Especially as MagusPharm was under-writing it.

And what was Beach working on? Sheepwool wracks her mind hard to pick out the essentials from Beach’s stream of enthusiastic science-speak. Ah yes. Carnostomids. Worms so obscure that even most zoologists had never heard of them.

Sheepwool wonders why a drug company should be interested in such things.

Later still, it could have been many years, but was in reality no more than a few seconds, Sheepwool’s mind slips a little further towards the lip of sleep. MagusPharm. Where had she heard that name before? Eat me. Drink Me.

Lobster Quadrille.

TubeWave.

She startles, jolts on the cusp of oblivion.

The many impressions of the day cascade through her head, cascade and fade, sentences breaking up like rotten snow, into words, fragments. Here’s a word, though: ‘womanizer’. Used as applied to Bland, and also Williams. Odd, though, isn’t it? We use it as a noun, describing a man who pursues women for sexual conquest. But not far below it is a transitive verb: ‘womanize’, as in ‘weaponize’: not in the sense of the pursuit of women, but of their creation, by transformation from other things.

Women from men.

It’s odd how two names she’s seen today that belie their owner’s gender. Alex. Marion. To be fair, she calls herself Percy, but at least she knows who she is. Doesn’t she?

But it goes further.

Women from fish.

The horrible, yearning face of Pickled Lily swims into view. She tries to put it out of her mind as she tumbles into sleep.

Off With Her Head!

She could never work out why anyone would like Hieronymous Bosch. But perhaps there is one corner of the world where his visions will ever be a reality.

**********

You are on the beach again, but it is night, deserted, and there is no light at all save from the stars and the gas platforms that ring the horizon like a necklace. The surf pounds and retreats, pounds and retreats, and you hope that this will soothe your mind, wear away the corners of your secret. You have told no-one that you were there that night, watching from your high window at the Institute. Nobody knew you’d never left, but you wanted to be alone, to grieve for your lost love, an orgy of self-flagellation, sitting there in silence and darkness, spending Christmas in your room, starving, thirsty, punishing yourself. But for what? And now he’s dead, dead! How dare he escape like that! But you are so stricken you want to die yourself, to walk into those welcoming waves and never come back. The urge is strong within you, but something inside stays you. It is your grief. It has yet to run its full course. And there’s something else, too. That from your high window that night, you saw someone leave the Institute in the early hours, creeping away, across the forecourt into the dark lane beyond. At first you couldn’t see who it was, until the beam from the lighthouse caught him.

It was Morrison.