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Fiction

The dead below

By The Sea: Part II, Chapter 5

Henry Gee 19 August 2007

www.lablit.com/article/291

Here is a young girl surrounded by encroaching horror, hurtling headlong into doom...

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 13

Fitch has heard all sorts of gruesome stories about the Old Graveyard at Deringland. She’d always thought they were just silly tales the boys at school (boys such as Bob Honeypott) had used to scare the girls (and themselves), but reading up on local history – as she has done, to get some perspective on the Bland case – she realizes that they might contain some measure of truth.

The Old Graveyard (she’d read) was situated on the cliffs behind the Church, and had been the town’s burying ground since time immemorial. Remorseless coastal erosion had rotted the cliffs for decades, depositing the occasional grisly morsel in the rock pools beneath. The final knell was struck during a gale in March, 1846, when an entire chunk of cliff collapsed, obliterating the graveyard right up to the lych-gate and raining corpses on to the beach.

It’s certainly true (she had been amazed to find, and making a note to keep this particular cutting away from Eric and Bryony, though Dean lapped it up with relish) that human remains are occasionally washed up on the East Beach, even today. (“Cool!” Dean had said, taking the library-loan photocopy to his room). Such remains are usually so worn and weathered that they cannot be recognized as such (thank goodness!) but sometimes there are perfect teeth in crumbled, barnacle-crusted jaws, and even skulls with crabs living in their eye-sockets. (Dean read this part aloud to Bryony, who’d only said “yuck!” and wrinkled her nose – attagirl!)

Only last year, apparently, a small child had emerged from the summer surf, triumphant, with a bucket of shrimp in one hand and most of a human leg in the other. This had been written up in the Mercury at the time, but Fitch had missed it – perhaps because the editor had buried the story on page 26, between adverts for the Koh-I-Noor Tandoori (Fully Licensed) on one side and the Restful Paws Luxury Cat Hotel (Ditto) on the other.

In the 1880s – many years after the Old Graveyard had slumped into the sea and into local fancy – the town elders, all of whom had had railway shares and were thus keen to attract tourism, had decided to build the pier, more or less on the same spot. There had always been a wonder – a question mark, you might say – about the outbreak of a still-unidentified disease among the workmen building the pier. Some authorities suggested that it had been cholera; others, anthrax; but nobody had been able to find out with sufficient certainty to satisfy all.

And then, of course, there’d always been the stories about the Gaiety Theater at the end of the pier being haunted, but then she’d always thought that the Theater had used this as a gimmick: nobody would ever really believe that stuff, would they? Fitch now remembers being told such nonsense by Bob Honeypott, which itself tarnished any truth these myths might have contained. She recalls vividly when Bob had told her: she’d been fifteen or sixteen, and he’d been trying to feel her up behind the science block,when Jason had come round the corner on his bike. She saw only a knight on a white charger, and then, well…Bob never groped her again, so she’d heard no more about skulls and stuff.

But now, to her horror and fascination, she discovers that Bob really had known a thing or two, and perhaps more than that, for there was the fact (fact!) that the very last person to have been buried in the Old Graveyard before it fell had been none other than Sir Frideric Lowdley-Purring himself: syphilitic, half-mad but by then definitely dead, interred the very day before the storm. His body had been carried away before...before, well, it had been decently rotted, and was never seen again. And she’s doubly amazed (given the things that Bob had tried to scare her with) that she’d never heard the local lore that the burial of Sir Frideric had somehow triggered the storm, as a way of cleansing Deringland of some pernicious evil.

After the catastrophe the town elders and the diocesan authorities had had to find a new burial ground. They chose a field on the bald north slope of Federal Hill, just south of the town, a cautious mile from the encroaching sea. She’s standing in the New Graveyard now – of course! – next to Sheepwool, and scientists from the Institute, and scattered oddments of friends and relations, and they’re all buttoned up against the cold wind, like the huddle of penguins she remembers seeing in one of the documentaries Jason and the kids like to watch on the Discovery Channel. The view’s fantastic, but the continuo of wind has shorn the half-hearted shelter belt of pines and yews into contorted, demoniac shapes. Even on relatively calm days, like today, a wind whips and veers round the stones, decorating the drifts of leaves with scraps of paper and old crisp packets, The leaves are leftovers from last autumn, lying in sodden heaps against the walls of the brick-and-flint chapel of rest – itself long abandoned, stained glass broken, windows boarded up against night intruders, the boarding peeling and flaked.

The coffin bearing the last remains of Dr Evanston Bland is lowered gently into the earth. Fitch, however, pays this event relatively little attention, being more concerned with her own internal equilibrium, jarred – as it has been – by the sudden shock of being forced to see familiar things in unfamiliar ways. When you’ve lived all your life in one place, as she has, you tend to take it for granted, to think well of it – to take pride in it. That other people might think of your home town as something out of one of the Stephen King novels that Jason likes to read simply does not occur to you. But then, she reflects, pulling the lapels of her coat up to shield her reddening cheeks from the biting cold, if you’re born and raised in a place, you just don’t see things in the same way that a stranger might.

A stranger like Sheepwool.

Until they’d sat together in the nave of the Church, she had not quite grasped the sundering chasms that separated their lives, their experiences. Fitch had always seen the Church in a rosy light, full of happy memories of childhood carol concerts and, most of all, her own wedding day. Now, all of a sudden, she looks at the Church through Sheepwool’s eyes – it is dim, cavernous, threatening, and much too large for the town it serves. The funeral service has attracted perhaps thirty congregants, but the totality is swallowed by this immensity of space, as if the Church can accommodate a very much larger number than this and still feel empty. Funny – she thought her wedding had been full, and cosy.

The warm bodies, each now occupying a small island of humanity in the long and pitiless pews, and each giving off its own misty exhalation into the frigid gloom, are not people overlain with an album of memories, cross-referenced with those elicited by most of the other people present, but bare ciphers, constrained and individual, a well of unanswered questions, of possibilities. For example, she herself had not met Boynton and Johansson until recently. Looking at them now, in the Church, she’d think they were an old married couple, heads canted together in whispered conspiracy in with complete lack of regard to the address of the minister, and to Morrison’s eulogy of hastily arranged blank platitudes from the pulpit. And who knows – perhaps they are? Married, that is? Even though she’s a policewoman and has greater licence to inquire into the details of peoples’ lives than most, she is unceasingly amazed by the fact that one simply never knows what goes on behind closed doors.

And there’s Janice Squearn who, sharply relieved of the burden of warm association, looks shrunken and, quite plainly, very ill, for all that her eyes spark with marble-hard defiance. She sits next to the silent, long-skirted housekeeper who’d admitted her and Sheepwool to the LPI on their first visit (Fitch realizes with a shock that the housekeeper had never been questioned – even her name was a blank). Next to them in his own pool of loneliness is Garrison Williams, his solitary state piqued, she now thinks, by the frequency with which he steals glances at Alex Beach, who is in the front row, but nowhere near Morrison. Neither Beach nor Morrison (when he is seated) look anywhere but straight ahead, each in a private steeple of their own thoughts. Morrison, she thinks, just looks bored – Beach’s face is unreadable. Or so she assumes: from this angle Fitch can mostly see just the back of her head.

And there’s Bob Honeypott and his formidable Ma. And other people from the town she recognizes, and several she doesn’t. There’s a woman, tall and heavily built – rather mannish, she thinks – sitting near the back. A woman who wasn’t at the graveyard earlier. Fitch suspects that she had tried to slip in unnoticed but, if so, the effort was futile. There is something about this person that sparks off hard jags of insecurity, uncertainty, even fear. Close to the end of the service, Fitch sees the mannish woman get up to leave in a state of some distress – red-eyed and brimming. In her haste she almost trips over Fitch’s bag (left carelessly in the aisle – one of her bad habits, as Jason likes to remind her) and a few quiet words of mutual apology had been exchanged. Fitch wonders who she could have been.

Such thoughts were summarily ejected following the arrival, almost at the end of the service, of Jim Levy, who’d perched, out of breath, on the end of the pew next to Sheepwool. Fitch had given them both a lift up to the graveyard. Sheepwool had rode in the front, Levy in the back, leaning forward to talk to both of them through the gap between the front seats. Levy had told them the news that very little of Bland’s body actually made it to the coffin. None at all, actually – Bland’s remains had finally (finally!) been considered a health risk and had been incinerated. No, the family hadn’t been told – it was something of a state secret – and he’d be obliged if Sheepwool and Fitch would keep it to themselves, too.

Fitch had said nothing, just fixing her eyes on the winding road out of town. Inside, though, she was appalled. She’s heard those stories about hospitals making free with the bodies of dead patients without consent, and hates to be a part of such a conspiracy. She can’t see Sheepwool’s expression, but senses that she, too, is less than pleased. Levy must have responded to this body language, for his spoken response is almost apologetic.

“I know, I know,” he says. “It’s dreadful. But the Higher Authorities – no names, no pack-drill – ruled that even in a case of death by natural causes, which this is – no doubt about it – some precautions should be taken. In this case, anyway, when no-one has any idea what these natural causes might have been.”

“But why not simply advise the family to cremate the body, based on the autopsy findings?” asks Sheepwool.

“For one thing, Bland’s will specified burial. But it’s as we discussed earlier, in the pub,” says Levy. Fitch thinks his answer is a little waspish. “This is an isolated case. We have no idea if what killed Bland is an infectious disease, but inasmuch as we can extrapolate from a sample of one, it doesn’t look like it. And the last thing the Higher Authorities want to do is spark off some panic when it’s not warranted. And I agree with them – on that, at least. So all we can do is watch and wait, and hope that this really is what it looks like – a one-off.”

“Watch and wait,” says Sheepwool, but this time Fitch is convinced that her superior is talking only to herself.

Then it hits her: that woman who’d left the Church. It was something she’d said. An excuse, about having to make an urgent phone call. A phone call. A call made, by an anxious, unknown woman. Thoughts writhe inside her head with the rapid-fire urgency of live buttered snakes on a griddle. This was the woman who’d phoned in with the tip-off that ruptured Morrison’s alibi. This was Heather Franks.

**********

“There’s something I think you should read,” he says. She looks at him then, enormous eyes glistening in the jagged shadows, as if pulled from a dark dream into happier but still uncertain wakefulness.

Garry Williams has, at last, got Alex Beach on her own. And here they are, together, in the secluded carrel at the Dazed Haddock where he’d tried and failed to grandstand before those two policewomen. He’d suggested a drink after the funeral – anything but having to attend the small family gathering at Bland’s bungalow – and Alex had readily agreed. Her smile of assent had wrung his heart out like an old rag. He is convinced that he’s never seen anyone or anything more beautiful. It’s the fact of her distraction, her evident preoccupation with things seemingly beyond his powers to apprehend, that he finds so alluring. Had she simply shed all these things and paid full attention to him – well, it would be sexy, but not quite so achingly lovely. For he knows that Alex can never be his, and never should be. Therefore, he reasons, what grabs him cannot be the thrill of the chase, because that implies that the hunt might yet be won: but some older, more courtly instinct, that she is actually, as well as theoretically, beyond his reach, and he is her champion. That here is a young girl surrounded by encroaching horror, hurtling headlong (had she known it) into doom, a girl whom such things should never have the chance to sully, and he has the means to protect her. Because he, perhaps better than anyone at the Institute, knows the danger she is in. Well, almost anyone.

And that’s exactly the problem.

“Mmm?” She turns, as if half in sleep. Her lips part slightly. He is aware of the pale freckles on her white cheekbones, the way the flesh of her lips lazily unzips as she parts them, her white teeth beneath. His tight-sprung heart winds up another notch.

“Yeah. Did you read Banneman? ‘The Voyage of the Spaniel’?”

“Banneman? No. At least, not yet. I’ve had a request to borrow it from the Institute Library but their copy always seems to be out. It’s hard to get otherwise – and as I assumed it’s just background, and I’ve got other things to read in the meantime…”

“I’ve a copy of my own, if you want.” He’d wanted to add ‘upstairs, here, at my room above the pub, come and look at it’, but caught himself in time – it would sound far too much the cheesy pickup line. As it is, the line is left hanging in space. But just before Alex can retreat, once again, behind those immensely filmic fish-blue and silver-gray eyes, Garry catches her on the hooks of his words. He hears himself say them and hopes they don’t sound too desperate. At the same time, he does not want to give too much away. For her sake, as well as his.

“Knowledge is power, Alex. Right now, you need both.”

“Me? Why?”

“You know that all those things you’re looking at – those carnostomids – all come from the Spaniel Expedition? Well, it sure was an interesting expedition. Just thought you should get into it, that’s all. Give you some idea of the...uh...whys and wherefores.” He is conscious of sounding enigmatic. He doesn’t want to tease. It could be an ingrained academic habit of coaxing students to find things out for themselves, rather than dishing it all up on a plate, and where would be the fun in that? But it’s clear that Alex’s mind is too often far from the matter in hand, and that she’ll need a little push. Otherwise she’ll just be led, unseeing, uncomprehending, to the slaughter. And he’s also conscious of not spilling any beans, or even of not wanting to be even seen to be thinking of doing so.

He knows who has ‘The Voyage of the Spaniel’ out on permanent loan. Oh, yes. He is sure it’s the same person who, he suspects, is – somehow, God only knows how – stealing a march on Alex’s work. And if his hunches are right (and Garry Williams didn’t get to his near-Nobelian eminence without trusting his hunches), it’s the same person whose disciplinary proceedings he’d once reviewed under the strictest terms of anonymity. Proceedings that enumerated in necessarily guarded language (the circumlocution making the facts all the more chilling) the trail of lost or missing regulatory instruments which, when reconstructed and followed, had exposed this person as one of the surprisingly few scientists who abuse the trust without which the scientific enterprise cannot function.

It had started as a case of data massage. Something which most scientists, if they are honest, find themselves doing (albeit almost unconsciously) if their concentration strays for just a moment. But things had evolved, exposing further and deeper and more hideous strata of infraction. Shadowy funding from bodies fronting for other bodies, still unidentified; unauthorized experiments, after hours. On humans. Without consent: unsurprisingly, given the results.

Death.

And things much worse than death. Some of those pictures still haunt the marches of Garrison Williams’ soul.

Somehow – God only knows how – the person had managed to bargain his way out of legal action. Perhaps because he was a relatively small fish in a larger pond, and had fingered others yet more shadowy and powerful. But nobody would – should – ever let this person near a laboratory bench again. He’d left science, gone into marketing, and then management. But lab work can be addictive. He knows that for himself, all too well. And he thinks that Marion Morrison has found a new fix. If so, Alex is in terrible, terrible danger.

But how can he tell her? Even were he not to break confidences and a variety of more specific injunctions framed in brutal legalese, she would hardly fall for a direct approach, given that she and Morrison are an item, or seem to be, and that his attentions towards her might so easily be...misconstrued. All Williams can do is keep watch, and drop the most tangential of hints. He only wishes he hadn’t fallen for her so badly himself. After three wives (two divorced and, with Bev, one death) he really should learn not to be such a walking heart. Love, he’s found to his immense cost, only makes things more complicated.

**********

Related concerns are, perhaps, in the mind of Detective Inspector Sheepwool when Methwold calls by her office in the late afternoon of the day following the funeral. A day of closure, he hopes – for the reports he’s been hearing from Levy (oh, that man should see a barber: and clean his teeth) have disturbed him; raised old ghosts he’d hope he’d never have to confront again. Only just now he’s caught himself looking at that silver-framed picture of Allie, and suddenly realizes that he’s been doing that a lot lately.

Giving up the fight, he decides to leave for the day, coat over his arm, and heads for the forecourt. An early night would do him good, anyway. Just him, a quiet meal, listening to the big-band jazz programme on Radio Norfolk. Ah! Allie used to love that programme.

Before...well, before.

Before shutting his office door he looks outside and notices that a wintry rain has started to fall and he wonders if Sheepwool would like a lift home (he knows Fitch usually does this, but she’d had to rush off and immerse herself in domesticity). Methwold been amazed at Sheepwool’s persistence, actually: walking to work, the ferocity of the weather a more than adequate trade-off against the shortness of the distance travelled. He lives in North Canterton, a few miles west along the coast, so driving really is his only option (unless he fancies waiting hours for the reliable yet highly infrequent Coast Ranger bus service).

He knocks on her door and enters, and it’s as if he’s strayed into a tableau. Fitch has gone, of course, taking her animated clucking with her (sharing an office with Elaine must be like living in a chicken coop, he thinks to himself, not without affection). Sheepwool is there, though, shoes off, stockinged feet on long legs crossed, taut, atop the desk. She is sitting back in her reclining chair, face turned from him, looking out of the window as if hypnotized by the renewed rain: he can see, in the window, the reflection of her round, blue eyes, like twin planets, unblinking. Her left hand is on the arm of the chair; her right, nearest him, has fallen over the side, grasping steel-framed spectacles by her fingertips only. The slight downward motion of the spectacles is the only movement in the room and, with the practiced grace of a weekend crown-bowls player, Methwold stoops downwards in a smooth arc and retrieves them, just as Sheepwool’s grip fails.

She starts, turns, sees him, and – afraid of falling – grips his hand. Her hand is warm within his, but firm, dry, authoritative: he does not let go so long as she needs his hand to right herself, to wake from her reverie. Then suddenly, and as primly as she’d just come in for her first interview, she pulls her legs off the desk, straightens up, smoothes down her blouse and jacket, and starts flustering apologies.

“Never mind that, Sheepwool.”

“Sir?”

“You were miles away! Just wondered if you’d like a lift home, that’s all.”

“Sir, if it’s no trouble…” He thinks that the little-girl-lost act, so vulnerable, might appeal to some. But it occurs to him that it doesn’t suit her hard-edged frame, optimized more for the rigors of decision. Sheepwool wants to see closure, too.

“None at all. I’m going that way anyway. Drop you off outside your door.”

**********

As he drives, he can see Sheepwool in the corner of his eye and (to his relief) she has regained composure. His instincts are proven right when she says, without prompting:

“Morrison. There’s something about Morrison. Him, and Alex Beach.”

“It’s closed, Sheepwool, closed. You know that. I know that. But yes, I think you’re right. He’s up to something. But Dr Beach is a grown-up. She can look after herself. And you know as well as I do that there are always loose ends.”

Loose ends.

“Yes, Sir. I know.” The rueful sigh, as of a foxhound denied the chase.

A silence. But in this silence Methwold is absolutely sure that they both share the same unspoken conviction. That there is something in the air, a heavy, congealed essence, that speaks to both these experienced police officers of careering, unstoppable fate. In this certainty he is gripped by the terror of one used to exerting control, who feels that something just at the edge of vision is slipping away from his sweated grasp, and he can do nothing about it. Nothing! He knows that Sheepwool feels precisely the same terror. He can feel it.

Methwold says nothing of this, partly through the simple economy of not repeating something they both know very well, but also for fear of saying too much, revealing things still too raw and private. Of those last weeks and months after Allie said that she was pregnant – and at her age! – and very quickly spiralled into a mental state he’d describe only as mad, until he’d had to restrain her from rushing out towards the sea. But finally, in all conscience, he could no longer, and she had gone. Tousled early morning bedclothes; a mug of tea, half-drunk; not even a note. In truth, the Allie he’d loved had vanished with the arrival of that thin blue line.

Still, even now, washing up and listening to the radio, he looks out towards those cliffs.