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Fiction

The madman in the fog

By The Sea: Part II, Chapter 3

Henry Gee 5 August 2007

www.lablit.com/article/286

In the real world, there is no such thing as coincidence, and there is only one crime

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 3

In general, Deringland has two kinds of weather. Either there is a wind blowing that rips into anything that isn’t nailed down, scouring anything that is. Or there is The Fog (Deringlanders always use the definite article and audible capitals), rolling in from the North Sea, smothering all in a thick, sealing blanket of cold. The small, luminous speck of it that Sheepwool had seen the previous night, something so small that she thought at first that it was no more than a smudge on the half-moon spectacles she likes to wear indoors, has, by this morning, grown into a rampant contagion that swamps the streets.

Sheepwool’s walk to the Station has been a disorienting journey through freezing cloud, starting with the total white-out that greeted her at the front door of Bordfield Court, as if, like Dorothy’s shack, the entire building had been plucked by some freak weather and was in the process of being transported to a magical and sinister kingdom. She herself has made the connection at once and spends most of the journey looking down at her fur-lined boots (having left her court shoes in the closet) because these are all she can see, as if they might transform themselves at any moment into red slippers, and a click of the heels will be all she needs to send her safely home.

Although she sees nothing, she hears the gruff grumble of cars just inches away, chuffing carefully through the near-zero visibility and betrayed only by clouds of deeper condensation and smears of red and white light that pass her, slowly, like geriatric comets.

All in all, she is pleased with herself that she made the journey without mishap, relying on little more than proprioceptive dead-reckoning and the few hints offered by buildings and street furniture when a gable end, or a window-frame, or a pillar box, emerge very briefly from the dead-eyed murk. Each one not much in itself, and possibly confusing to a complete novice, but Sheepwool is now just sufficiently well-acquainted with the landmarks of her new home, however unconsciously noted, to have been able to place each in its context. And so, as she greets the warm ground-floor office she shares with Fitch, she congratulates herself, and puts on some coffee in celebration. The cafetière is soon gurgling away.

There are, however, two things that worry her, clinging to her clothes like spent dreams. The first is the shudder at the recall of having met just one other person on her commute: a shaggy, mad-eyed man who had loomed out at her like a sudden standing stone, just outside the Three Kings. He had grimaced and yelled something incomprehensible that was sucked forcibly into the fog before he, too, followed his crazed imprecation into the white oblivion.

The second is that there is no sign of Fitch. This is unusual, for Sheepwool has become used to her Detective Sergeant always arriving well before she does. Sheepwool is, in truth, rather ashamed at herself about this, given that Fitch has a family and a school run to organize and a drive across town whereas she only has a short walk, irrespective of its occasionally alarming signs and portents. Sheepwool has always prided herself on her ability to work on her own, to work things out in her own mind. But now, she finds, she’s grown so used to having Fitch around that she has become dependent on her. Without her, here, now, Sheepwool becomes irritated and paces the room, arms crossed, wondering what to do.

And then, Fitch arrives, harassed, anorak dripping, blonde curls flattened and greyed with drops of water. Sheepwool looks up and, just for an instant, wishes to reprimand her for being late, but this small and (she admits) thoroughly ungrateful impulse is soon overwhelmed by one of gratitude. Fitch has arrived – normal life may once more resume. In Fitch’s wake is a stocky man in a hooded parka. He throws it back, shedding water, revealing a mass of wild hair and bloodshot eyes. Sheepwool is amazed: it is the man who, roaring like a polypheme, briefly ambushed her outside the Three Kings.

“Sorry to be late, Ma’am, it’s this weather!” One sudden shock after another – Sheepwool realizes that Fitch must have driven here. “And on the way I met Dr Levy. Have you met him?”

Sheepwool confesses she hasn’t (resolving not to mention the raw and fogbound ambush) and introduces herself.

“Nice to meet you, Inspector. I got the train in, from Norwich. Glad I did. But when I got out at the train station I got lost immediately. If it hadn’t been for DS Fitch, who heard my bellowing, I’d still be out there wandering about like a ghost ship.”

Fitch smiles. She hangs her coat on the bentwood hanger where Sheepwool’s mac is already resident, takes Levy’s parka, and heads, instinctively, for the coffee jug. Sheepwool had, at least, had the presence of mind to have put it on. She could manage that much, at least.

**********

The office being too small to accommodate all three of them at once in any comfort at all, they are seated in an interview room that is larger but sparser. Not one for interrogating suspects – more for consoling the anxious parents of miscreant offspring or the relatives of people whose lives had been suddenly ripped away, leaving their dependents as washed up as driftwood. Not that this place makes many concessions to homely comfort: it looks like an annexe to the waiting room in any hospital emergency ward. The seats are metal, rectilinear and padded with vinyl and foam. Piles of long-outdated, greying magazines lie on a chipped side-table with the uncaring, insouciant disarray of an elderly prostitute’s beauty routine. The walls, painted an institutional blue, are decorated with improving notices about the dangers of drugs, alcohol and driving too fast. The vending machine has long since ceased to function – Fitch, Sheepwool and Levy have come here with their own mugs, like tourists on a picnic grimly determined to enjoy an afternoon outing to a drizzled, polluted, sharp-shingled beach in the lee of an oil refinery. At least they have the room to themselves, for the present.

“Well, I’m puzzled,” Levy begins, crouching before the low coffee-table on which their mugs are placed. The pose forces him to lean forwards, conspiratorially. Sheepwool notices the incongruity of his appearance. Although he is wearing a suit as neat as anything that Dr Morrison might affect, the impression of style contrasts rudely with the rest of him: long, dirty gray waves of ageing rock-star hair wash over his collar and around a hedge-bearded face. His cheeks and nose are rough, ruddy and lined with the thin tracks of burst vessels. His teeth are testaments to many long years of indulgence in pleasures of the kind which the puritanical writers of this room’s wall posters might regard as deeply dangerous, if not actually sinful.

But beneath this near-palaeolithic neglect lie eyes that are arresting in their sea-green intelligence, and an animation in his body that threatens to burst the buttons on the neat jacket, as if suits do not feature greatly in this man’s mental wardrobe. Summing up, Sheepwool pictures Levy most succinctly as a spaniel with clothes on. Thinking of this, she has a brief but nasty recollection of Kitten Hell and wondered what Sir Frideric and his friends did with dogs. The horror must have been broadcast on her face, for the next thing she sees is Fitch’s concerned face, close to hers, asking her if she is all right. Just like that day with Pickled Lily. And just like that day when...different female officer, room very much like this. A tear beads the corner of her eye.

“Ma’am?”

“Inspector?”

“No, sorry.” She takes a breath, straightens up. “I’m all ears. Please continue, Dr Levy.”

Levy had come as quickly as he could from the autopsy – Bland’s autopsy – which had happened yesterday in Norwich. He wanted to fill them in before they received anything official, and to explain any delay in the forthcoming inquest.

“To be honest, I thought it was a coronary, at first,” he says. “Elderly man, unsocial hours, stress, you know.” Levy waits for assent, as if the policewomen really did know. But for Sheepwool, this is news of a sort, corroboration that Bland was indeed out of place, out of time, for reasons yet to be discovered. But Sheepwool feels her eyes widen, as she nods fractionally to acknowledge Levy, urging him to continue. Inwardly, she feels herself boil and hunger for any concrete facts that the pathologist might wish to impart; any secrets at all that he might share; any bones on which she and Fitch can hang their incomplete rags of supposition and conjecture. Not for the first time, Sheepwool feels a strong kinship with Alex Beach, scientist, in the rawness of her realization that the puddle of knowledge is insignificant compared with the ocean of ignorance, and in the frustration that to gain further knowledge, the ocean must be examined drop by drop, stewed, distilled, rather than swallowed in great gulps in the vanity that one might ever begin to assuage that impatient and never-ending thirst.

“Well, a coronary was what I first thought. But then I examined his skin, and it looked odd, kind of blistered, and then, I thought, there was more to it. ‘Aye aye’, I thought to myself – looks like some kind of allergic reaction. Whether that had anything to do with the coronary...”

“Allergic reaction? To what?” Sheepwool leans forward. In the corner of her eye she sees Fitch leaning back, getting a notepad from her bag.

“Can’t say, as yet. Could be anything. Unlikely to have been a bee, or pollen, at this time of year. His medical records say nothing about the usual things – peanuts, penicillin, latex. At this stage it could be anything.” His voice becomes darker, more stern, as if a steely mind is shedding its usual coat of affability. “Anything, especially in that...that place.”

“The Institute?”

“The world is full of allergens, Inspector. I’ve seen people who’ve died, or nearly so, because of a brush with a neighbour’s cat, or some seemingly harmless woodland plant, or even quite normal things like coins or wallpaper paste or particular brands of deodorant. Now, think of the Institute: it’s Allergy City in there. Not just the dust and dirt of it,” Levy wrinkles his nose in distaste, which Sheepwool thinks mildly ironic, given Levy’s appearance, “but the specimens themselves.

“I guess you’ve been there, Inspector. Piles and piles of old tat from around the world, lots of it biological and nobody really knows where it’s from.” The shade of Pickled Lily hangs briefly over all of them. “But that’s no crime. Not in itself. What I don’t like, speaking professionally, as it were, is that it’s so poorly looked after. Yes, Inspector, I’ve seen the rotting seals on some of those jars, the cracks in the cases, oozing goodness-knows-what. Who knows what’s been leaking out over the years?” Sheepwool notices that Levy’s cheeks redden and his eyes sparkle with a barely suppressed and pitiless fury, like the reflection of halogen headlamps in chips of gravel. “Really, I’m amazed that Environmental Health hasn’t closed the place years ago. So, goodness knows what Bland was allergic to.”

Fitch scribbles a note.

“He was allergic to something, though?” prompts Sheepwool. “Something that might have been related to the coronary?”

“Well, yes, Inspector...yes, and no. Sure, Bland’s nasal membranes and windpipe were inflamed, as you’d expect if he was allergic to something – the tests are probably being done in the lab even as we speak – but there is more to it than that. I hope you’re both sitting comfortably.” He himself sits back, his expression unfathomable.

“Dr Levy?”

“Well, yes, first it’s a coronary. Then it’s an allergy. And then what? Both might be right, or, at least, contributory...to the death, that is. But when I opened him up, it was like nothing I’d seen before. You know, don’t you, that when you do an autopsy, you take all the bits out of a body, weigh them and have a general poke around. So when I thought ‘coronary’ and ‘allergy’ you’d think I’d want to see the heart, the lungs, the major blood vessels; open up the stomach and intestines to see if he’d eaten anything that disagreed with him; not forgetting a good butchers at the liver and kidneys, in case he had been poisoned or if there were any long-term problems, diabetes and so on?” Levy sounds as if he had been doing nothing more unpleasant than servicing a car.

Fitch is absolutely still: Sheepwool, glancing around, notices that her colleague’s face has faded from its normal rose to a pinched, chalky white. Sheepwool begins to turn towards her but a movement of Fitch’s hand, too tiny for anyone else to notice, signals reassurance, and that for all its promised grisliness, her desire to hear Levy’s testimony without interruption. Fitch is as keen to pursue this chase as she is, no matter what the cost.

“Well, I was prepared for all that. All in a working day, you might say. But when I cut him open, this is what I saw – nothing. The windpipe got more and more inflamed as it went down, so did the oesophagus, but not far below the collar bone it all faded out into a homogenous crimson goo. No internal organs. It’s like Bland swallowed a blender, tuned it on and left it running.”

“But what...?”

“What caused it, Inspector? No idea. Not an earthly. Of course I bottled up some samples and sent them to the lab. They’re working on those right now, too. But heaven knows if they’ll find a cause. I have never seen anything like it. Actually, thinking about it, that’s not true. I did see something similar, once.” He leans closer. Their three heads form a triangle over the table, coffee quite forgotten.

“Not long after I graduated, and finding it hard to get a job here, I picked up some work in West Africa. First the Niger delta, then the Gambia. No names, no pack drill, but there are some tropical diseases that do this. Liquefy the internal organs. Hemorrhagic fevers. Very rare. Very, very deadly. It’s only the fact that Bland hadn’t been abroad for many years that has prevented the whole Institute being put off limits by...well, not to put too fine a point on it, higher authorities than mine. That, and the fact that the same higher authorities seem as pig-ignorant of the dangers of things leaking out of old and creaky museums to think that what might have pulverized Bland’s insides could have been in the Institute for years. Decades, even.”

“But, Dr Levy, if Dr Bland’s insides were...well, all messed up,” Fitch frowns as she asks what seems a disarmingly naïve question, but which, as always, exposes uncomfortable lacunae in our understanding. Sheepwool smiles inwardly as Fitch continues. “If his heart and lungs and such were all scrambled, Bland couldn’t have been...well...walking around like that. Could he? He wouldn’t have been able to breathe. Yet he seems to have got into the Institute, you know, all on his own, and...”

Levy sits up. “Yes, Detective Sergeant. The time course. You’re right. Whatever killed Bland must have done so rather suddenly. But I don’t think he could have breathed something in, then and there, or got poisoned, and suffered such an instant...well, instant liquefaction. I think he’d been infected some time before and whatever was doing it had slowly built up until it had reached a crisis point, a threshold. Then he would have just keeled over.

“But now I’m speculating. That’s all I have to say, except this: whatever killed Bland, the coroner will say that he died of natural causes. And I’d have to agree with him. Doesn’t matter if those natural causes remain to be identified, but at present – and of course I’d have to defer to your knowledge here of the people involved – I can see no case for foul play here. Unless he was poisoned by somebody with the kind of amazing occult knowledge and truly evil mind that you don’t see outside...well, did I mention higher authorities?”

“Dr Levy, you used the word ‘infected’,” says Sheepwool.

“Did I, Inspector? Slip of the tongue. Thinking of my African days. I saw some things out there, Inspector. Things that would make your hair stand on end. Things...”

“But if you meant what you said, could we have some new disease? Surely, caution...”

“Should we close the Institute? The word from the higher-ups is that we shouldn’t act too hastily. Balance of probabilities, you see. The Institute has been open for decades, people walking in and out, and although Bland could have caught something off a pickled mermaid or something, nobody has ever seen anything like this before, so it’s just as likely that he caught it elsewhere – if ‘caught’ is the right word.”

“And what’s your view, Dr Levy?”

“Me? I think the Institute should be closed down right now and placed under what our American colleagues call Level-Four containment. Totally sealed off. Martian suits. Disinfection. And not just because it’s a crumbling death trap. Just between us, and strictly off the record, you’ll remember BSE, and Foot-and-Mouth, when the cat got out of the bag, if you ask me, as a result of too much higher-level farting around and not enough action.”

“But what about Bird Flu?” asks Fitch. “Every time they talk about it on the news, it’s headlines for weeks.”

“My point exactly. All it takes is for a swan to sneeze and even Posh and Becks get blown off the front page.” Fitch smiles, but Sheepwool looks puzzled. Clearly, she and Dr Levy had very little reading matter in common. “But has anyone said anything at all about Dr Bland’s death? Hmm?”

Silence. Publicity was the last thing that had occurred to either policewoman. Usually, when there was a dead body, there had been a press conference. Methwold would have coached them in what to say, and what to leave out. Not this time. Not even half an inch in the Deringland Mercury. Sheepwool is left alone in her own head, more puzzled now than at any other time since the investigation began.

**********

To the outside world, the death of Dr Evanston Bland, as mysterious as it was in many ways, would have to be put down to a freak of nature. So the inquest would say, and the funeral that would follow. Sheepwool is convinced that the case will soon close, at least as a police matter, and that she will be moved to other duties.

She is unhappy though, at the loose ends. Morrison’s lies; the role of MagusPharm; what drove Bland to the lab at such an unaccustomed hour; the identity of the mystery informant; Alex Beach’s possible complicity; the bizarre results of the autopsy. And most of all – mainly because it had never occurred to her before – why there had been no public announcement of the death. The reasoning part of her brain, the part that likes things cut-and-dried, tells her that she will have to accept things as they are, because no case can ever be as neatly resolved as you’ll find in a detective story, isolated and separated from other cases as separate gift-wrapped parcels under the Christmas tree. One event leads to another until they form a massively interconnected ramifying network of happenstance. In the real world, there is no such thing as coincidence, and there is only one crime.

The meeting with Levy now over, Sheepwool is gripped by a compulsion, strangely strong, to return to the Institute (despite Levy’s warnings) as a tourist. As she works her way through a morning of routine, the thought coalesces that a closer look at Pickled Lily, now she knows what to expect, might help her sort things out in her own head. So, leaving Fitch to catch up with some paperwork, she calls for a taxi. She could have asked for a police car and driver, but does not wish to attract undue attention.

And so it is, in mid-afternoon, the battered Peugeot Estate that is the sole vehicle of Deringland Cabs inches through the thinning but still considerable fog and deposits Sheepwool in front of the Institute. That so little of the hideous building can be seen through the blind murk is a blessing, and Sheepwool climbs the steps with unaccustomed lightness of heart. Perhaps it is her instinct, as a professional, that despite her misgivings, this case will soon be closed, taken from her, her responsibility no longer. Or, perhaps, that the fog is shielding her from some watchful malice.

She trips past the statue of Sir Frideric with the impudent glee of a schoolgirl and heads towards the main public gallery. But the spring in her step fades and finally crumples as she reaches the great hexagonal case and inches round to the southern side. Pickled Lily limns into view like the dark side of the Moon.

The fog has bathed the gallery in an even, pearly light. There are no shadows within which objects might hide and generate spurious menace. Likewise, there is no glare to obscure details in blinding shafts of sudden light. Sheepwool notices that the polished parquet floor immediately in front of Pickled Lily’s case is bare (the word ‘tank’ had fleetingly occurred to her, as the mermaid is, after all, suspended in fluid) and that a large, padded bench stands facing it, about six feet away. A bench for the ease of Pickled Lily’s audience, perhaps: or for those who might view her as an oracle, her case a kind of shrine. A comfort in times of trouble, a source of inspiration and advice.

Our Lady of Deringland.

Sheepwool’s mouth hardens and twists. Even though she has accommodated the shock, knows what to expect, the sight of Pickled Lily is still disquieting. In her presence the padded bench seems a necessary relief, rather than an optional comfort. Sheepwool now sits on it, squarely in front of Pickled Lily, and feels the last vestiges of cheerfulness ebb through her toes and into the floor. In her grim tableau, her arms outstretched, pleading, her chapped lips stretched, her teeth bared, Pickled Lily reaches out to Sheepwool as if trying to communicate some hidden agony, some secret but devastating message that will bring down this place, even from beyond the walls of night. A message of hideous abuse, of appalling injustice, of dreadful crimes committed long ago and never punished.

Sheepwool gazes at the specimen, and past her, into space. The ambiguities of the Bland case swirl around her head like buttered tigers chasing one another’s tails. There is only one crime, she reflects, for in a sense, all crimes are identical: someone is done a disservice, and there must be recompense, but that recompense leads to further crimes, further injustice, and these multiply exponentially with each loose end that is not cauterized.

But all loose ends, like all crimes, are the same.

Such are her thoughts as she leans forward and studies Pickled Lily’s label, and reads once again of the exploits of Obed Marsh, the curse on his crew and the selling of Pickled Lily to Sir Frideric’s agent. But that’s all rubbish, Sheepwool says to herself – the label admits as much. The salient point is this: Pickled Lily is thought to have been Sir Frideric’s greatest achievement as a taxidermist. Only ‘thought to have been’, for as the label implies, Sir Frideric hardly bragged about it, as he had with all his other, inferior sports, and his secrecy extended to a ban on any further study, even after his own death. Sir Frideric Lowdley-Purring clearly had something to hide. Something horrible: and he had got away with it. And as crime begets crime, cause begets consequence, she strongly suspects that Morrison has secrets too. Whether he has committed a crime in the past, or his misdemeanour remains as yet lost in the future, Sheepwool is sure that he, like Sir Frideric, has secrets that he would rather remain so to the grave, and beyond it.

No, more than sure. She is absolutely certain.