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Fiction

An exile of secrets

By the Sea: Part II, Chapter 4

Henry Gee 12 August 2007

www.lablit.com/article/289

At times she fancied she heard peculiar sounds emanating from Frideric’s private rooms at the far end. Sometimes even, screams.

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 12

The mind of Lady Felicity Lowdley-Purring was now wholly given over to internal conflict, the opposing sides in such balance that she was effectively frozen immobile.

On the one hand, she had been forced to leave her comfortable home in Kensington, her friends, all but a few of her servants, society in general. Forced out – by scandal, she could only admit it to herself – and banished here, to the ends of the earth.

For any woman of her station this should have been a one-sided argument without compromise. Deringland was a squalid village populated by what seemed to be savages, remote in a dark region, as far from the tides of fashion and gaiety and social intercourse as the meanest hovel. To have exchanged Kensington for Deringland was more than exile – it was punishment.

And this house, Ketchingham Lodge – this rambling, draughty, misshapen building, such a contrast with the elegance of her old home – was not even in the centre of that tiny village, its paltry services to command; but on its periphery, and even then, was not a proper house, for all that it dwarfed her former home in size. It was in fact a kind of gatehouse, a decayed Restoration folly, the last and southernmost outpost of (she had been informed by Ralph Willoughby) what had been a medieval estate, long ago, whose manse had long since crumbled into the still-encroaching surf. The present cliffs now ran sheer across the grounds like a gash, not fifty yards from the back windows. It was said (again, Mr Willoughby had much delight in imparting this information, though his eyes were directed more towards Rebecca than to her) that when the weather was especially severe, one might hear still the peals from Ketchingham church, faintly, from beneath the pounding waves.

But Lady Felicity was not as outraged by her present fortunes as one might have at first supposed. Pallid, somewhat reserved, with protruding eyes and wide, flaccid lips, she was – if she were honest with herself – as glad to have left London as she would have been to have remained there, with its noise, haste and bustle, its crowds and stink. She had never liked it so much as to call it home in her heart: nonetheless she had been fearful to leave it, for it was all she had known, at least since she had met Frideric in girlhood and later married him.

She had furthermore taken ill the dark rumors about her husband, the whispers of people who had thought her back turned; whispers that had depopulated her London house of visitors so that it became as effectively deserted as any seaside retreat in winter. The public tale was that it had been Lady Felicity ’s delicate health and need for the restorative airs of the sea that had directed this migration, and not any of the affairs of Sir Frideric – and such should be made plain to anyone.

Many in their shrinking circle had politely assented to this fiction. But it was the most recent rumors – about Sir Frideric – that had finally driven them out.

Rumors to which she quite deliberately had paid no attention whatsoever.

But now she’d left, she was glad. All fictions should to some measure be earthed in fact, and it was true that in Deringland she had found clear air, and cool; a revival of her spirits, and a relief from the cruelties that the well-meaning words of friends might afford. Such slights as she had lately suffered had been supplanted by the noise of the sea, from which she derived such delight as might be scarcely credible in one who had never seen any more of the sea than the tamed and neutered waves at Brighton. She would sit in her morning-room in the clear north light, listening to the many voices of the sea. And it was on more than one occasion that they found her – Frideric, or Mr Willoughby, or even Rebecca – sitting near the very edge of the cliffs as if she were a kittiwake, deaf to all entreaties to return.

These, then, were the two balanced sides of her demeanour. The one, which enjoyed with a quiet appreciation the sophistication of London; the other, hating it, all of it and gaining comfort from this wild shore.

If there was one thing that tipped her heart in Deringland’s favour it was the lighter manner of her husband, who seemed in Deringland to have shed a great weight. To be sure, to her he always presented a cheerful face, whether here or there, but she was his wife, and their move to Ketchingham Lodge had been accompanied by a slight lessening of those intimate habits to which he had become prone to an excessive degree in their final months in London. She consoled herself that all husbands were, she believed, wont to vent their frustrations in such a manner, and covered the scars and wounds as best she could.

Indeed, Sir Frideric had found in this lonely house the space and lack of interruption he required for his researches; to display and extend his cabinets of curiosity, and to practice his formidable taxidermic arts.

Had she paused to consider any of these things even for a moment, and the connexions between them, Lady Felicity might have realized that her knowledge of her husband’s activities was variable, both in degree and in kind.

His cabinets, of course, were open for all to see, and Lady Felicity found, to her pleasure, that she was a hostess once more, at least to those few persons of refinement who lived in that part of Norfolk, or those others sufficiently idle or curious, who came to marvel at Sir Frideric’s collections. Often had she heard him boast in company, especially after dinner when the Halberds or the Bordfields were there and Rebecca was invariably required to sing at the pianoforte (accompanied by the redoubtable and attentive Mr Willoughby, their sole remaining London connection, who had served as Frideric’s agent and confidant) that Frideric’s aim was nothing less than to create a repository of knowledge of all things marine.

“The greater part of the Earth’s surface lies under the wave,” he would say, throwing his great arms wide, face shining and ruddy with snipe, venison and claret. “Not over it, under it! And of its secrets we know vanishingly little. Let us expose the secrets of the sea to the light of knowledge! Let us expose them!” And he would raise another glass of claret and the company would all cheer, she herself not the least.

Of his taxidermic arts she knew only of what finished products might adorn these selfsame collections. He had been much engaged with cats of late, and had asked her to communicate to the servants and thence to the village at large that here would be a home for unwanted kittens, and sorry specimens would be delivered in sacks to the kitchen door, anonymously and under cover of night. She wondered whether any arrived alive, and drew back from the manner of their dispatch, had they arrived alive and were then rendered otherwise.

Of course she knew little or nothing of how Frideric practiced his arts, or even precisely where, for there were parts of the house to which she was, if not quite forbidden from entering, then at least strongly discouraged from going. She fancied that it was her own reticence – her own fear of what she might find – that was a greater bar to her curiosity than anything that Frideric might actually do or say.

Though, she recalled, one evening when he had found her strayed into a narrow corridor that she had not realized existed – a corridor dominated by an enormous, fanged and black-furred creature, and from whose walls hung tapestries illustrating people and animals engaged in activities which she could not at first discern, because she had thought such things unimaginable – following which Frideric had led her away with gentleness, repaying her later with more than his usual degree of amatory extravagance and force. The act of sitting down had presented various problems for several days following. She had not been tempted to venture into that corridor again, or near it, though she at times fancied she heard peculiar sounds emanating from what were presumably Frideric’s private rooms at the far end.

Sometimes even, screams.

Such rooms were, she presumed, the location for Frideric’s philosophical researches, but of these she necessarily knew nothing whatsoever. She knew better than to ask Mr Willoughby about them, and on the one occasion when she had mentioned the matter to Rebecca, her daughter had responded as if she’d been stung by a hornet, and changed the subject.

There were clues – signs – but a natural caution drew her away from thinking too much about them such that she might read into them a coherent picture. As the Lady of the house she could not help but notice the relatively rapid arrivals and departures of servants, especially the younger girls. And as a local notable, albeit one reclusive in spirit, she had been witness to much discussion in recent weeks of disturbances in the graveyard at St Christopher and those in adjacent parishes, which had increased the commissioning of lockable, lead-lined coffins. The ‘Sack-‘Em-Up’ men, among the many scourges of London, or so she had heard, seemed to have followed them to north Norfolk, presumably in search of fresher prey, and easier.

She was likewise aware of the frequent deliveries by cart of large packages for the sole and expressed attention of her husband whose contents he would never discuss (and concerning which she was prudent enough never to inquire).

She was, in the main, shielded from furtive and largely nocturnal meetings between her husband (like as not accompanied by Mr Willoughby) and various visitors who for some reason did not make themselves known at the front door, but insisted on less well-publicized entrance and swift egress through the kitchen. She was aware, however, that transactions of a similar nature happened with fair regularity on the beach, given her habit of strolling along the shore at night, under the stars, but all she ever heard were voices, rather than any words exchanged.

No – all these things she let pass. But if her own mind was in a state of careful balance, perhaps swayed towards contentment by the evident satisfaction and pleasure that the move to Norfolk had given her husband, then there might be one thing that would direct the compass of her mood back towards a guarded equilibrium. That was the state of her daughter.

Rebecca – tall, shapely and lively, with a clear complexion, wide gray eyes and dark hair (much like herself in her youth, she reflected with pleasure) – had been as happy in London as one might expect for any handsome, well-connected girl of seventeen, and equally as sullen as any such girl forced into exile many miles from her home and acquaintances. Lady Felicity felt that Rebecca’s mood would alter to the good, given time. But Rebecca had remained unhappy, and her moods had deepened. She spurned company, often failing to appear at the dining table. Her voice had declined with her spirits so that she sang now rarely, if at all. Frideric, when the subject was raised, would make light of it. Mr Willoughby, who had expressed some affection for Rebecca – and indeed doted on her slightly more than was strictly proper, she thought, for all that this might compensate for the dearth of girls of Rebecca’s age and position in the immediate locality that might serve her well as friends – took Rebecca’s seeming malaise more seriously, but seemed impotent to turn it around.

Lady Felicity soon found such avenues as existed for the exploration of her daughter’s state swiftly exhausted, and was left only with hope and prayer. She did notice one thing, however, and that was Rebecca’s mood at any time when her father might appear. Whereas once, as a young girl, she had joked and played with Sir Frideric as boisterously as any boy, eyes sparkling in her pale face, her father’s entrance into any concourse at which she was already present now rendered her unusually silent and mulish. At first Lady Felicity had dismissed this as a symptom of any girl her age – she had seen such things often enough in London, and perforce such moods were also Rebecca’s answer to having been uprooted.

But as the months passed, and a chill and windy winter gave way to a wan spring and the promise of outdoor activity, Rebecca’s spirits still failed to improve. Whereas Lady Felicity deliberately forbore to examine her husband’s activities too closely, she lavished much greater attention on her daughter. Because of this she noticed a closer connection between Rebecca’s moods and the presence of her father, such that were Sir Frideric to approach Rebecca directly, she would recoil, as if stricken. This was a circumstance for which she could offer herself no explanation, and at the same time she was reluctant to discuss it with anyone else.

**********

“So, now we have the long-expected result of this much-delayed inquest, there’s nothing more to say, is there?”

Methwold tents his fingers and shifts in his chair as if about to say something else, but the question, rich in sarcasm, is almost rhetorical and requires nothing more than the conventional response.

“No, Sir.” Sheepwool, not wishing her irritation to show – irritation that would stray, were she to let it, to the border of fury – resists the urge to shuffle around in the chair opposite. This morning, she senses some small risk that she might lose this battle. Stalling it, she gets up and leaves, without a word, not looking back, thinking that as the atmosphere in Methwold’s office gets thicker with every step she takes, she’ll have to move fast if she is to escape at all.

Case closed.

In the corridor, back to the cooling wall outside Methwold’s door, she grits her teeth in frustration. The corridor is dingy and dark – the fluorescent bulbs in an overhead cluster of lights have gone out, all except one, which flickers like the wing of an injured pigeon. Loose ends, she keeps telling herself. There are – and will always be – loose ends. As if that were satisfactory in this case, for Morrison had outfoxed her by loudly tying one of them while conspiring to bury another: hidden, it seems, from everyone. Except her.

Three days earlier, Sheepwool and Fitch had cornered Boynton in her laboratory. Cornered – there was no other word for it: the woman had the prickly hauteur of a duchess and clearly regarded the presence of officers of the law in her sanctum sanctorum as akin to having to tolerate servants tracking dog shit on the floor. Boynton brought herself to talk to Sheepwool, just: she all but ignored Fitch. Nevertheless, they managed, between them, to drag out a tale of Morrison being funded by MagusPharm (which they already knew); tittle-tattle about MagusPharm’s attempted hostile takeover of Dr Johansson’s family firm (which Fitch had already had, first hand); and some snide, second-hand academic gossip about Morrison’s first meeting with Alex Beach (which amounted to very little).

It was then that Sheepwool and Fitch had confronted Morrison, as brazenly as they dared, given that the cause of Bland’s death was still yet to be established – but murder was looking less and less likely.

It was this, on reflection, that fuelled Morrison’s cocksure attitude: whatever he was hiding, such things could be hidden by diverting attention away from them. So when Sheepwool had asked him about his funding by MagusPharm, he had not denied it. In fact, he had admitted it fully, and at length, and also told them, without prompting, that Alex Beach was funded by MagusPharm, too – thanks, in part, to his arrangements – and that he and Dr Beach were currently engaged in what he called a ‘relationship’, “not that the fact that I’m fucking Alex Beach is really any business of yours, Inspector, is it?” Sheepwool clenches her fists at the memory. She feels her long nails excavate small holes in her palms. Stigmata. No wonder Methwold looked like he wanted to crucify her. The final bulb gives one last, pathetic flash and dies above her head.

But that wasn’t all.

Morrison, again, without prompting, had then launched into a long and passionate exegesis on why major funding from MagusPharm was necessary. “The collections at this Institute are irreplaceable, Inspector. Priceless. But the Institute is falling down. Literally. The Trustees’ surveyor has just sent me this report,” – Morrison brings out a massive sheaf of papers which he lets fall on his solid pine desk with a dramatic thump – “which says, not to put too fine a point on it, Inspector, that the whole place is likely to go arse-over-tit within two years, maybe sooner. Over the cliff. The county’s Environmental Health people, who goaded the Trustees – lazy sods, every one – to commission this report in the first place, have been on to me and – quotes – ‘recommended’ that this place is closed down and evacuated as soon as possible. And I have to say, I agree. What’s more, they’d said as much to Bland, years ago, but he was more interested in porking the staff than doing the job he was paid for. At least I’m trying to do the second as well as succeeding in the first, which is more than Bland ever managed – on both counts. So if you want my opinion, Inspector, I think it’s a good job that Bland is out of the way. About fucking time, if you ask me. And you can quote me, all right?”

Sheepwool had glanced at Fitch, who had turned white and sat in her chair, immobile. Morrison seemed to be aping the words of his own scientists – the scientists who, according to Fitch’s investigations, seemed to have had one up on Morrison. But now Morrison was showing why he got to be the Director, and they didn’t. By playing a hand of calculated recklessness. By sheer bloody politics.

“But MagusPharm wants those collections to survive,” Morrison continues, his voice, quiet and authoritative, shot with a measure of righteous indignation. “Just like the Trustees only pretend they do. MagusPharm wants to use them. To fulfil, if I may say so, the wishes of Our Fucking Founder.”

Sheepwool wonders about the degree to which Morrison’s high colour, his tone of determined annoyance, his well-placed injections of profanity, were synthetic. She confesses that she still has no idea whatsoever: the man had her outmanoeuvred.

“So you see, Inspector, much as I’d like to help you investigate the death of my completely useless tosser of a predecessor, I’m actually working twenty-four-seven to find somewhere – anywhere – that I can move a huge collection, much of it irreplaceable, all of it delicate, a high proportion of it preserved in highly inflammable and toxic liquids, much of which would, these days, constitute a biohazard – in the next few months. I’ve found places that want to take bits of it, but the shit-for-brains Trustees insist that it must be kept together, like some debutante’s legs, and nobody has room for the whole lot, so nobody wants any of it. Not the County Museums Service, not the Natural History Museum, not even the American Museum of Natural History – but if I did that, you can imagine the unholy fucking furore there’d be about Britain’s heritage being shipped abroad and such bollocks. And there’s no time to build a new Museum, even if we had the money and the planners singing from the same hymn sheet, and didn’t have years to waste on planning inquiries – which there would have to be, Inspector, because nobody is going to want our spirit store at the bottom of their garden. MagusPharm – who is paying for all this – is spitting fire. But at least they are still paying. Without them we’d be bankrupt. Totally fucked. And the collections would have to go off piecemeal no matter how loudly the Trustees squealed. And the fucking tragedy is that if the late unlamented Bland hadn’t thought with his cock the whole time, there might even have been a way out of this mess. At the very least, the Institute wouldn’t be quite so far up shit creek as it now finds itself.”

Sheepwool had opened her mouth to interject, to divert Morrison on to the question of his movements on the night Bland had died. But, once again, Morrison got there first, steaming ahead, always one move in front.

“You want to know who last saw Bland alive? It was probably me, Inspector. Bland found me that night – yes, that very night – to have some stupid teenage confrontation about Alex, saying that he’d seen her first and I was stepping on his turf or some such tripe – yes, Inspector, that’s what he said, ‘stepping on my turf’. As if Alex Beach is only good for one thing, and that’s for lying on. As if there weren’t other more important things to worry about. I told him not to be so ridiculous, to get a grip – and fuck off. Which he did. So now you know. The stupid prick probably went down to his lab to lick his wounds, and keeled over. You’re asking me if I’m sorry? Well, in public I have to parade the usual platitudes. But in private – which this is, Inspector – I couldn’t give a flying fuck. Now, if you’ll excuse me…?”

As Sheepwool and Fitch rose to leave, Sheepwool tried one last, desperately Parthian shot, asking Morrison where he and Bland had had their argument. “I was at home, Inspector. As I’ve told you before. The moron came and pounded on my door. What’s that got to do with anything? Now, I really do have calls to make. Pull this place back from the fucking brink. Literally.” Morrison picked up a phone as if to emphasize the point and Sheepwool and Fitch, without quite knowing how, found themselves in the public gallery, outside his closed door.

Outside doors. In corridors. Alone, humiliated, gutted. At least, Sheepwool now reflects, she hadn’t dug herself in further by blurting out the eyewitness report that Morrison was at the Institute at the time, not at home. Especially when they still hadn’t tracked down the witness, or even knew who she was. Sheepwool, cowed, hobbles along the corridor to the office she shares with Fitch. She collapses, winded, into her chair, and kicks off her shoes. The tension in the soles of her feet begins to ease.

God, these heels.

Fitch isn’t there. Something about a school concert. Bryony playing the violin. And it wasn’t as if they’d had much else on at the Station at the moment, was it?

**********

As soon as the policewomen leave, Morrison puts down the handset (the phone call being a ruse, though he’ll have to make one for real, soon enough) and sits down. He takes a deep breath, relaxes, and as he does so he feels sweat pour from him: sweat suppressed throughout the fight-or-flight confrontation with the policewomen. The small of his back is sodden; his armpits slick; and if he doesn’t do something, the inside of his suit will soon stink like a rat’s arse. Luckily, the solution is at hand. Wiping his brow, he rises, turns and clicks open a door behind his desk – a door disguised as a wooden panel. It opens on a dressing room with a small, modern shower cubicle and a surprisingly deep closet. The dressing room is furnished with a chaise-longue spacious enough for one. But, on occasion, just squeezable for two.

This small but convenient space had once been a store-room but Bland had had it converted for the Director’s private use, and whatever he now thinks of Bland and his private life, this had been one of his better ideas. When he’d first discovered it he’d found a stash of quaintly old-fashioned soft porn and several packets of condoms, unopened, apparently possessed more in hope than expectation.

Morrison strips and showers, feeling the anxiety peel off him with the sweat. He imagines Alex – in the shower, her fabulous curves glistening in the wet, her gorgeous, snowy-white tits, her...how had Bland put it? ‘Turf’? Normally he’d feel himself hardening massively at such thoughts. But, unlike Bland, Morrison is proud of how he can direct his energies, arrange his priorities. So he suppresses an urge to pay Alex another visit in her lab (that girl is just too easy!) because, for now, there is other work to be done. Not that he can’t use sex as a goad, but no – he looks down at his small and shrivelled tackle, whose wretched state confirms to him that the problems he is now facing are as arse-clenchingly pressing as he’d told the policewomen.

Yes, he thinks he’s put on a good front with the police, turning his Aggrieved-Suspect Act all the way up to eleven, perhaps enough to throw them off. Inspector Sheepshit, or whatever her name is, might be shrewd, but he thinks she’s onto a loser, for two reasons.

One, because – from what he’s heard – the inquest will probably say that Bland died of natural causes, and that will be that. In the clear. Free. And La Dipshit certainly didn’t seem quite so on-the-ball (on his balls, anyway) as she’d been last time.

And, two: the fact that the problems he’d told them about were largely true, which only made his performance all the more convincing: the Institute really was on its last legs, and his job was to find a new home for it all.

Well, not entirely, perfectly, squeaky-clean, honest-to-God true.

Morrison turns off the jets, towels down, splashes on a liberal measure of cologne and selects a new shirt, tie and suit from the closet. He’ll get the housekeeper to take the rest to the dry-cleaners later. But on top of that he finds a crisp, pressed lab coat. One with the MagusPharm logo embossed on the top pocket.

The MagusPharm people, he consoles himself, really don’t give a shit about the whole collection remaining together. All they want are results, especially from carnostomids. And if, after that, the collection falls into the sea, so much the better – nobody else will be able to get in on the act. If Alex, true to the talent in her which he’s recognized and on which his reputation at MagusPharm increasingly depends, can isolate active compounds from carnostomids and find ways to recreate them synthetically, MagusPharm’s investment will have paid off. Especially if they are anything like TubeWave. Oh yes, big bucks. Big time.

Big time. If there is time at all. Which is why he now thinks he’s been caught between the proverbial rock and hard place. Alex, he now knows, is undercapitalized, and he won’t be able to screw results out of her as quickly as MagusPharm would have liked, or as their remaining time at the Institute will allow – no matter how talented she is. He’s thought about and around this problem many, many times, but can only ever reach one conclusion.

Sure, he could outsource some of the work – but to whom? And when? Finding more people of Alex’s calibre takes time, which he doesn’t have.

Yes, and he could move Alex to another lab, better equipped, somewhere else – but not with the carnostomid collections, and not without enormous security risks, especially if she’d be working in a University lab where secrecy is less important than in the commercial sphere.

Of course, he could pack her off to one of MagusPharm’s own facilities, in Basel, Seattle or Shanghai, visiting her now and then for a luxury weekend fuckfest at MagusPharm’s expense...but seriously, the logistics don’t bear thinking about, and the Trustees would never release the material she needs if they thought it was going to be exploited commercially.

So, Alex is better off here, well away from prying eyes and any sticky fingers but his own, and where she and Morrison can continue squirreling out the secrets of the sea from under the Trustee’s pig-like noses.

Now then, if that’s the case, he could always bus more staff in here to help Alex – but this would be hard to do without arousing suspicion. And even if he could find anyone suitable in a hurry, where would they go? There is room for two more in Alex’s lab, and Bland’s lab is obviously free, but he doesn’t want to move too fast without arousing suspicions, especially while the Trustees have the nod on all appointments, even if they are on someone else’s money. And the Trustees, he’s learned, have two speeds – dead slow, and stop. Except that they have three, for if they smell anything they think is fishy they go into full reverse. Even if – especially if, it seems – the Institute they govern is quite literally on the brink of collapse.

All other options exhausted, Morrison always comes to the same conclusion. If you want a job done, you have to do it yourself. Only this time, he swears, he won’t get caught. He steps into the closet, parts the massed ranks of Armani, gently lifts aside a curtain at the back, and steps into another world.

When he first found it, he swore that there really was a God.

Not long after he had first joined the Institute and was exploring the Director’s secret closet, he was trying to find a jacket or tie or something, tripped, and fell very hard against the closet’s back wall. But rather than bouncing off hard stone, his shoulder made a large crater in what was not, as expected, masonry, but a thin screed of wooden laths and horsehair plaster. When he’d recovered from the shock it didn’t take him long to make a hole in the back of the closet big enough to walk through without too much trouble. No need to call that berk Honeypott – an evening’s work with a torch and a few simple tools was sufficient.

He remembered that night as if he were Howard Carter and this was the Valley of the Kings. The hole he’d made gave on to a sheet or hanging of some kind, ancient and heavy with dust. Pushing himself through what must been a slit deliberately scored in the heavy material, he found himself in a corridor, utterly dark, but dry, with no hint of the sweetness that betokens damp and decay. Turning the torch back on the tapestry between whose leaves he’d emerged, he saw a depiction of a frenzied bacchanale, with – well, not something you’d want to show school parties. Turning again, he almost collided with a vast mass of blackness. Stepping back, alarmed, he realized he’d almost collided with some massive stuffed, furry...thing. Kind of like a bear. Except bears don’t have hands like that. And beyond the bear, there was a door. Ajar, hanging amid what looked like a shallow sea of dust.

He walks through that corridor now, conscious of an unmeasured height teetering into darkness, a galleried landing halfway up on the right hand side, hemmed in with dark, uneven bookcases. This thought is, for the moment, fleeting, for it is the door at the end that welcomes him now. The door into his very own chamber of secrets.

When he had first found it, his first thought was that it was a medieval torture chamber. Or maybe an abattoir. Dimly lit from two grimy skylights far above, the room was dominated by two monumental wooden benches, punctuated with various metal and leather stanchions or fastenings. The wood was pitted and made darker by swathes of some ancient stain. This same stain marked the filthy flags on the floor. Dark wood cabinets were arranged around the walls, filled with ancient glassware – all broken – and all kinds of iron and brass instruments whose purposes he could not fathom. There were, however, several large buckets full of knives, probes, pokers, forceps and other tools, all of which were stuck together, and to the bases of their containers, by some unnameable, blackish mass. At one end there was what looked like a forge, with a hearth, anvil, and enough chains for a Gothic sadomasochism convention.

It took a few secret visits for him to work out that this laboratory – if that’s what it was – must have been Sir Frideric’s private den. So private, that he – or someone coming after – had blocked it off. Morrison was sure that nobody had broken into it for more than a hundred and fifty years. When Bland had had his closet fitted, the workmen had obviously not bumped into the thin false wall that divided the old store from the corridor with the black beast and the tapestry. Its very presence went unmarked, undetected.

Until now.

It took just one phone call to MagusPharm to set the ball rolling. No strangers to setting up laboratories in odd places with the utmost discretion, the company had transformed the old room into a compact laboratory in which Morrison could shadow Alex’s work, but fast-tracking it into more immediately fruitful directions. He was worried that Alex was becoming waylaid by the joys of zoology, mesmerized by the diversity of it all – when what he and MagusPharm needed was results that could be turned into drugs, as quickly as possible, without worrying too much about their precise zoological provenance.

Not too many weeks before Bland’s death, he was beginning to get somewhere. His first, rough extracts from carnostomids, filtered from a jar from the Spaniel Expedition he’d lifted from the spirit store, appeared to exert strange effects on human tissue. Squirt some on a smear of blood and the erythrocytes shrivelled as you watched. Or, at least, it worked with his own blood cells, which was all he could get. He found the same things with squamous epithelium (cheek swab, again his own) and semen (ditto: Bland’s porn collection did have some use, after all).

But when he did the same thing with Alex’s cells, something very strange happened. Or, rather, didn’t happen. Morrison didn’t like to recall too vividly how he’d obtained such a sample without Alex’s consent – that was the sort of thing that had pitched him into the shit before – but the results were clear. Carnostomid extract nixed his cells, but not Alex’s. Purified extracts did the same thing, only more so. A purer carnostomid extract made Alex’s cells positively glow, while reducing his to membranous rags. The effect of carnostomids on unprotected human cells wouldn’t be hard to imagine – provided they were male. Provided, of course, you could generalize from a sample of two, divided into two groups of one each. Phooey.

But that’s as far as he’d been able to get. When Bland died, Morrison’s first worry was that through some unforeseen contamination he’d upped his male sample to two, and had confirmed his hypothesis, all at once. When Sheepshit had shown him the body, just one sight of Bland’s eyes, his skin, had provided all the backup he’d needed. Bland had died from natural causes, all right – he’d been infected with carnostomids. Morrison was sure of it.

The gut-churning worry was that, somehow – he had no idea how – he, Morrison, might have been the unwitting agent. He kept telling himself how nobody at the Institute knew of this lab, and how he hardly ever saw Bland. But Bland could hardly resist keeping his hands off Alex – could Morrison have transmitted the carnostomids to Bland through her? And how long did it take for carnostomids to kill a whole person? Could he have infected Bland on the night they’d had that argument, hours – minutes – before his death? Surely not: although Morrison had rushed out of the lab so he could meet Bland in his office, Morrison was as scrupulous about lab hygiene as anyone. More so, in fact. And he and Bland hadn’t touched, hadn’t even shaken hands –

Only now does Morrison think back on something that Bland had said in that final showdown. “Morrison, I know what you’re up to,” he’d said. And Morrison thought he’d been talking about Alex. Truth dawns, with a sickening, blinding light.