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Fiction

Two kinds of dark

By The Sea: Part II, Chapter 2

Henry Gee 29 July 2007

www.lablit.com/article/283

Slowly swirling: the self-similarity of stirred tea and distant pinwheel galaxies. And of memories, imperfectly recalled

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 2

Ah, how evocative smells are. Evocative, yes, but sometimes very hard to place. This one, though, is not quite Proust and his madeleines. What smell is this? Is it...urine? Deserted, ill-lit concrete alleyways flash before her mind. Slumped rubbish; resentful, deceitful faces. No, not urine. Sweeter, smoother. Smugness and triumph: not quite sweat, either, because this smell...ah, this smell...contains none of that sweated anxiety of thwarted escape.

Dreams tumble in on one another.

Sheepwool now sees the teeth of sharks, jaws opening to reveal the enormous blue eyes of a frightened girl. Sitting with Nick in some scratchy-seated cinema in Camden before...well, before. Watching some Japanese anime. She sees a car forever moving from right to left, from right to left, and she comes to it at last.

TubeWave. The new designer drug distilled from the sea, ripped from a potentially powerful antidepressant currently undergoing clinical trials.

She remembers how she laughed when she first heard the name of the company that made it;

She remembers how her team was looking into suspicions that the company did not seem as worried as it should have been that its new drug had hit the street; that it was undergoing, for want of a better phrase, real-world testing.

She remembers, now, how she couldn’t help humming the company’s name all that day at the Station, to a defiant tune: ain’t gonna work at MagusPharm no more.

Only now she’s not laughing. No, not laughing, but...waking.

She wishes her brain could switch off when she’s not actively on duty. Too much time alone means too much time to brood. She looks across at her bedside clock, which quietly tells her that it’s five minutes past midnight, and envies Elaine Fitch, whose mind is blessedly compartmentalized; who turns for home at the end of the day without a backward glance: to children, and fish fingers and turkey dinosaurs and potato waffles and peas; and, of course, to a husband. Someone she can talk at, instead of the echoing insides of her own skull.

Her mouth feels as gritty and sour as the bottom of a birdcage. Creaking, she rises and totters to the kitchen, swirls water into the kettle and rattles around in her box of herbal teas. Something with ginger in it, to scour away this fetid corpse taste.

But ah, that smell. She remembers it now, from when she and Nick had not long met. Long, lazy nights and early mornings in his college rooms; taut, winding-shrouded sheets and the befuddling stink of it, and the slick euphoric wetness that went with it. Oh, Nick...how I miss you. And now it makes sense, of course. It is the smell of sex.

That was what she’d smelled in Alex Beach’s lab.

Sheepwool had decided to call on Alex Beach at the Institute. Not wanting to trouble Fitch, she had decided to walk there, and had put on jeans, sweater, mackintosh and sensible low-heeled pumps for the purpose. It seemed to take her hours, battling the breeze with every step, a breeze which for all its rawness did not manage to dispel quite all the shreds of night that clung obstinately to the alleys and doorways of Deringland.

As she struggled, she wondered whether there were not in fact two kinds of darkness. One, by far the most common, is a simple absence of light, found in places where light simply does not penetrate. Then there is the second kind of darkness, much less common but more robust, and which is actively inimical to illumination. The first has driven the second almost to extinction, for whereas the first only needs the absence of light to propagate, the second requires additional nourishment. And yet it lurks, nonetheless, in isolated places such as wind-scoured moors where humanity fights and yet clings limpet-like to the brutality of existence; in old buildings whose labyrinthine human history feeds into their decrepitude, and seaside towns largely cut off from the tide of human intercourse, and where the humans that exist there prey largely upon one another. In other words, where such darkness is afforded additional adhesion by the memory of human misery.

The kettle steams and clicks.

The worst part of the journey was the last, across that seemingly endless grassland, at that place where the track disappears behind a knoll, and the Deringland Light and the Institute have yet to hove into view. A place of endless and disorienting sky where, at one point, Sheepwool half expected some vast and leprous moonrise in the blear daylight sky, a moon with the accusing, half-rotten face of Pickled Lily. She could hardly credit the relief she felt when she saw the Light and, behind it, the Institute: home, she is convinced, to several very fine and ancient examples of that second species of darkness. But she resolved then and there, that as soon as she arrived she’d ask Mrs Squearn to arrange a taxi home.

She roots around in a cupboard for a clean mug. Not finding one, she washes up the few things stacked on the draining board.

Alex Beach had looked somewhat out of sorts when she’d arrived at the laboratory, angry with herself, like it was mid-morning and she’d only just started arranging her notes, her slides. Her clothes were crumpled and askew, her hair spiked and disarranged, and the scientist herself broadcast an edginess counter to the pale smoothness of her face. Glancing only in furtive jags at Sheepwool, Beach smoothed down her sweatshirt with the nervous obsession of a startled rabbit and had said that if she’d wanted Dr Morrison, he’d just left. The words were weighted with all the cowed sulkiness of a bored teenager.

Now Sheepwool can connect with that smell, and her recollection of that interview can be seen through its roseate light. Only now, hours after, is she conscious of the flush to Beach’s face, and the nipples standing out through her sweatshirt as she’d tried to straighten it. Ah, but was that a genuine recollection, only now honestly recalled; or an elaboration, created by the filter of memory through her own further mental processes, colored as they are, now, with her own associations, her own liquid desires? How fickle memory is: how ill it serves. How memory changes with exposure to any and every subsequent thought; how it is winnowed on the bed of past experience; and yet how it fools one into an impression of archival permanence. How are its animal origins and drives antithetical to the reason and logic with which we fancy we form our daily lives, our interactions with others. And yet it is memory, an object whose color is not known; whose size and weight are unguessed; whose location is a matter of conjecture; and whose very existence as a discrete object is a subject of debate, which must suffice as the principal tool of any investigator. For what is forensics, what is corroboration, but to provide concrete authentication, a placeholder in reality, for this most evanescent of things?

“Actually, Alex, I wanted to see you, not Dr Morrison.”

Beach had looked up, then, brightening slightly, as if her mental journey had climbed up at last from a dank and thicketed ravine to a clear, windswept upland. Sheepwool had wanted to take her ease here, especially after her long walk. But the only convenient place was the sofa in Beach’s laboratory, and this, somehow (she now knows why), did not lend itself to sober recollection. She could think of nowhere else to conduct an interview. Perhaps inspired by the unaccustomed practicality of her own clothes (she is not sure) but it popped into her head to suggest that she and Beach went for a walk outside, perhaps down to the shore below the Institute. Beach readily agreed to this, picking up a bulky anorak without further prompting.

Sheepwool finds a lemon-and-ginger teabag and flops it into the mug.

Was Beach’s enthusiasm conditioned by the thought of welcome fresh air: or relief that she was not being arrested, or cautioned, or being brought to the Station for the canonical Helping-Police-With-Their-Inquiries? This question nags at her as the seconds and minutes of night wear away, vapour rising from the slowly swirling herbal infusion as she stands at the kitchen counter, staring into a space that only she knows or can inhabit. Slowly swirling: the self-similarity of stirred tea and distant pinwheel galaxies. And of memories, imperfectly recalled.

The phone rings, as surprising and unwelcome as a cuckoo to a meadow pipit.

Beach strode before her, as keen as a dog let off the leash. Sheepwool, whose lean frame tried its best to keep up with a woman perhaps half her age, reflected that this savage, childlike eagerness did not suit Alex, as if her body were too large for it, and that she should affect a mood more circumspect, reticent, even (she kicks herself inwardly for having thought this) more womanly, becoming. Perhaps, though, Alex Beach is primarily a creature of mind, and does not think too much about how the image of her body is projected onto the canvas of reality.

Leaving the Institute, Beach found a path, to the right and seaward side of the car park, that led through a brake of gorse, down wood-framed earthen stairs, and into a deep, wooded cleft in the cliff. Trees clung to the steep slopes, tense roots standing proud of the ground as if physically braced against imminent collapse. Their branches were hung heavily with creepers, and ivy and brambles scarfed over the leaf-moulded ground from which snowdrops were starting to emerge. This was a world closed in: out of the wind, the air stood still, damp and unusually warm, laden with the scent of mould, of fungi burrowing beneath bark with beetles in their wake. As she walked, Sheepwool felt that this wood was a realm of secrets that would remain undiscovered, as one could hardly stop to admire the view, even were there one to descry, for it was impossible to negotiate the twists and turns of the perilous descent without ceaseless vigilance. You had to watch where you put your feet: the treads of each step were of uneven height; some had rotted away, whereas others stood proud from eroded earth like teeth whose gums had receded. In places the stairs gave out completely, especially round switchback corners defined by trees, the treads replaced by laddered tree roots. But even so, Sheepwool’s eyes, looking up to anchor her eyes on Alex, well ahead of her, got fleeting images of brown, shadowed depths, populated, she was sure, by that second kind of darkness, foundering sullenly in abandoned rabbit holes and the puddled hollows of rotten stumps.

At no time during this descent could she see the sea: and even the sound of it, stridently audible from the Institute itself, was muffled, muted by the same vegetation that shielded it from view. Until, quite suddenly, the path ended, blocked by a gravel berm on which Alex Beach stood, beckoning. Sheepwool swished and dragged her way upwards through the gravel to meet her at the top of the ridge, and there was the sea before her all in thunderous array, thirty yards down the beach and from one horizon to another, surf crashing and gravel clattering and foam flying: the sea, with all its light; and rich, weedy tang; and endless, endless, deafening roar.

“It’s quite a view,” Alex yells.

The phone rings, as surprising and unwelcome as a cuckoo to a meadow pipit.

Sheepwool, still standing at the counter, removes the tea bag from the cup and raises it to her lips for an exploratory sip. She remembers how Alex beckoned her along the shore to the westward, where, beneath the cliff itself, a reddened buttress of eroded earth clad in sea buckthorn afforded a relatively quiet hollow, no more than a foxhole, in which they could talk.

“Sometimes I hike down here to have a think,” Alex had said. Sheepwool decided then, for the moment, to postpone any discussion of what promised to be an exhausting ascent, were they to have retraced their steps. “I don’t know why, but it’s something about the sea. It’s magnetic. You know, Inspector, when I wake at night and hear it, when there’s a storm, it is somehow a comfort.” Beach’s expression flashed from eagerness to happiness to remote thoughtfulness, as if there was something she wanted to say, but couldn’t quite put it into words.

It was then that Sheepwool decided that the time was right to jump right in and tell Alex how Morrison had been, when Sheepwool had shown him Bland’s body. Yes, as if he were pleased. And, the memory having brewed and matured in Sheepwool’s mind, as if such a circumstance were not entirely unexpected. This was the point, Sheepwool recalls, taking another sip, to which the entire exercise had been building: she wanted to see Beach’s face on hearing this news: Beach’s face, a faithful mirror of every thought and feeling that passed through what, to Sheepwool, seemed a troubled mind.

The phone rings, as surprising and unwelcome as a cuckoo to a meadow pipit.

And the expression that met her was of an anguish that Sheepwool would have had difficulty putting into words. There was conflict; there was the realization of betrayal, and the dawning knowledge that a lifeline still existed, standing before her.

“Inspector...you’ve guessed...you know…”

“What do I know?”

“That Morrison...I...he…”

This is where Sheepwool had come to a fork in the conceptual road, and her reassessment of that conversation is weighed, and turned over, in the light of competing hypotheses, none substantiated. Beach soon recovered her composure, changed the subject and suggested (to Sheepwool’s relief) that they both walk towards the town along the seashore.

Beach’s split-second reaction, when she dropped her guard for one hot second, seemed to have let something slip, but what? That Beach and Morrison are lovers is something that Sheepwool had guessed, in which case Beach could have been reacting to a secret that her lover had kept from her. If Sheepwool is correct about Morrison’s character, then this would be no surprise. On the other hand, there could be some deeper force at work, and what she had witnessed was the very edge of a confession, a journey right to its rim, that Beach and Morrison were complicit in something more. Something more, even, than both being employed by MagusPharm. Something more, which could explain why Bland was in the laboratory that night, and why his visit had been repaid with death. But there Sheepwool dared not go at present: not until there had been an inquest. Although foul play had not been ruled out, neither had it been ruled in.

It’s at times like this that she wishes she could bounce such ideas off Fitch. But Fitch, if she were sensible (which she is) will have long since read an episode of Harry Potter and the Temple of Doom or whatever to her children and curled up on her own sofa or in bed with the solid and dependable Jason.

The thought goes through her like a skewer.

Provisionally, though, and as a working hypothesis, she selects the simplest: that Beach and Morrison are complicit only to the extent that lovers are, and if they both happen to be funded by MagusPharm, then it should be no surprise, either, that people working in the same line of business should forge more intimate relationships. That being said, there is an uncomfortable residuum: for Sheepwool is sure that Morrison is up to something, and the question of why Bland was so uncharacteristically in the Institute at night remains unresolved.

The phone rings, as surprising and unwelcome as a cuckoo to a meadow pipit.

Standing at the kitchen counter, mug in hand, Sheepwool notices that the phone is ringing. Her mind’s butler, ravelling a rapid recall, suggests that the phone has rung no more than four times. The answering machine will interrupt after six. It takes no more than half a second for Sheepwool to pick up the kitchen extension.

It is Fitch.

“Ma’am? So sorry to disturb you so late.”

“Not at all, Fitch. Mulling things over. What’s up?”

“We’ve had a tip-off, Ma’am. The Station just phoned me, not five minutes ago. I...we...that’s Jason and me...were just getting the kids’ school bags ready for tomorrow when they called. That’s Angie on the front desk. That’s who called.”

A pause. A distant, muffled rattle like some nameless insectoid infestation faded into what could have been low, daemonic muttering, punctuated by the eerie whistle of a distant ghost train. The Deringland telephone exchange, Sheepwool had read in the Mercury, was one of the last in the country to hold out against the digital revolution. It was all to do with the wiring. Publicly, the telephone company said it was a problem with the electricity supply. The electricity company, having tested the supply repeatedly and found nothing amiss, said it was a problem with the telephones. In private, according to the Mercury’s informed source, they agreed that neither could justify the expense of rewiring a singularly ancient and eroded system, given the low density of population, and secretly hoped that everyone would switch to mobiles instead. In the meantime, the phantoms and sprites that had once spread through the entire national network had become concentrated here, in Deringland, as endangered species.

“Yes? Fitch? Are you still there?”

“Yes, Ma’am, sorry. Well, Angie said that somebody phoned in, not a quarter of an hour since, to say that they, that’s this somebody, had seen another somebody – somebody else, that is – leave the Institute in the early hours of the morning when Alex Beach discovered Dr Bland’s body.”

“Somebody?”

“That’s just it, Ma’am. Angie said it was a woman, that’s all, who wouldn’t give her name or details or anything. She wanted it to be anonymous, seems like.”

“Pity. Did they say any more about the person this anonymous source had seen?”

“Yes, Ma’am, Angie was most definite about that. The caller said it several times – it was Dr Morrison.”

Sheepwool pauses to digest this news, mug halfway between mouth and counter. “And when, precisely, did the caller say she’d seen Morrison?”

“Well, Ma’am, the caller was quite definite about that, too. It was around three a.m. That’s when...”

“That’s when Dr Morrison told us he was at home in bed. And when did Dr Beach call him?”

“I don’t have my notes here, Ma’am – they’re all at the Station...”

“I understand.”

“...But it can’t have been later than three-thirty.”

Phantoms and sprites: analog to digital. “Fitch, I have an idea.”

“Ma’am?”

“We know that Morrison raised the alarm when Bland died, because Alex Beach called him. I bet Alex called him on his mobile, assuming he’d be at home...”

“...because, well, where else would he be?”

“But the thing with mobiles is you can be anywhere. Especially round here.”

“Well, Ma’am, the landlines in Deringland are a disgrace, so everyone has one. A mobile, I mean. Both my boys have them. Jason, well, he has two, and even Bryony says she wants one. Quite a few of her classmates...”

“So, Fitch, Beach just assumed Morrison was at home, when he could have been at the Institute, or anywhere else for that matter.”

“Do you think we should arrest Dr Morrison, then, Ma’am?”

“Whatever for?” Sheepwool’s reply is decided and definite. “Yes, he appears to have lied to us about his alibi. Yes, this might be critical. But we do not yet know if Bland died from anything more than a heart attack.” Sheepwool pauses. She remembers Morrison’s expression when he saw Bland’s body for the first time, and Beach’s agonized rictus when she told her of that same incident.

“Ma’am?”

“Yes, Fitch. Sorry. You’re right. We should keep tabs on Morrison, but let’s bide our time. When you get in tomorrow, see what you can dig up about his past.”

“I could interview Johansson again, and catch up with Boynton. And I still have to track down this Heather Franks person.”

“But there’s one more thing. Now it seems we have an eyewitness report that Morrison was at the Institute when he said he was at home. Now, it’s anonymous, and it could simply be malicious gossip, you know how things are.”

“Ma’am?”

“Well, if it’s true, it means that there was at least one more person in or around the Institute that we don’t know about.”

Fitch, artlessly as ever, throws out another idea: “Ma’am, do you think it might have been Dr Beach? You know, she finds the body, calls Morrison assuming he’s at home, then looks out of the window and sees him, and...”

“Hmm. Hadn’t thought of that.” Sheepwool, thus intrigued, now thinks, and having thought, her conclusion is clear. “No, Fitch, it can’t have been. She was down in the lab at the time the caller says Morrison was seen, which was before Alex called him. Have you been in the labs at the Institute, Fitch?”

“No, Ma’am...I’ve just been in some of the upper rooms.”

“Well, you see, the labs have no windows. If Beach were there the whole time, and there’s no reason to say she wasn’t, then she couldn’t have seen anything. But you’re right. We have to keep an open mind.”

“So, Ma’am, that could be two people whose alibis might not be solid.”

“Two people. At least.”

“Ma’am, you know what I think? I think we have to find Heather Franks. If it’s not Beach, then it has to be her. But whoever it is – whoever it was – had to have known Morrison well enough to have recognized him.”

Sheepwool is convinced that Fitch is completely unaware of her own acuity. Long may it last, she thinks – long may it last, for such gifts sometimes wither in the harsh light of self-knowledge. For, irrespective of the mystery caller’s identity, she – it is a she – had to have been able to know Morrison sufficiently well to have identified him, from a distance, from the back, in the dark, and during a storm.

“Yes, Fitch. I agree. We must track her down.”

“And, Ma’am...before I forget...my mind’s like a sieve!...before we can interview anybody, Jim Levy’s calling in tomorrow. The autopsy. Bland. Will you be at the Station, Ma’am?”

Sheepwool is amazed at herself that she had forgotten this. She curses herself inwardly for being so wrapped up in hypotheses and counterfactuals to neglect the plain fact that there might be no case to answer, by Morrison, Beach, Franks or anyone else.

Smiling ruefully to herself, she assures the thrice-blessed Fitch that she’ll see her in the morning, wishes her good-night, and hangs up.

Her mug now as empty as her soul, Sheepwool watches helplessly as the darkness of night closes in. She walks to the sitting-room window to adjust the curtain. Looking out, there is already a hint of fog.