Whisper of the surf

By The Sea: Part III, Chapter 1

Henry Gee 30 September 2007

It is because she is an inlander that she is aware of the pervasive power of the sea – the power to pull people under with inexorable, irresistible force

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.

Part III

Chapter One

Deringland, as has been noted, suffers from formidable weather, with one exception – it rarely snows. Even in the deepest vaults of winter, black-freighted clouds roll from the sea to offload their cargo at least ten miles inland, leaving most Norfolk residents with prospects of crisp whiteness under morning sunshine, while Deringlanders scurry about their business beneath a close pall of gloom.

But there comes a time when the proprietorial cloud lifts, even here, and it is in her office one day in the last week of April when Sheepwool looks up to be assailed by a light from her window so white, so blinding, that she cannot help but cover her eyes in fearful apprehension – only to realize that what she sees is the first sunshine of spring, whose radiance she has long forgotten. She lowers her hand from her eyes and smiles, basking in the warmth, staring straight at the beams until her eyes water. She fails to notice the door to her right open and snick shut, and it is only when Fitch bends low over her desk, obscuring the sunlight, that she looks up and takes notice.

“Ma’am? Are you…?”

“Mmm? Yes, Fitch, thank you – I’m fine. You?”

“Yes, thank you, Ma’am. Do you mind if I…?” Fitch waves vaguely at an armchair. Sheepwool wonders at Fitch’s stiff formality. To be sure, after the Bland case closed, Methwold had put Fitch on other duties that have taken her away from the Station most days. Another advanced driving course. Study leave, too – Methwold knows a bright spark when he sees one and, on Sheepwool’s recommendation, has encouraged the younger woman to aspire to the heights of Detective-Inspectorhood. Sheepwool and Fitch, therefore, have moved apart, and the companionable ease they were just starting to enjoy during the Bland case has stiffened somewhat, from lack of use.

Sheepwool, for her part, has been managing a portfolio of somewhat lesser duties. But there are loose ends – loose ends which she acknowledges must often stay that way, for all that their frayed edges catch on the inside of her soul.

A flash of blue.

She wishes she had a legitimate excuse to visit Alex Beach again.

Fitch takes a seat and perches uneasily on it, knees pressed together as tightly as her lips are pursed. Sheepwool looks up with added interest. She feels – has felt – that she has not come to know Fitch as well as she’d have liked to have done, and now her junior is swimming off to newer, broader waters.


“Yes! Well! I must say, Ma’am, that these new courses…these exams…they’re quite a challenge, aren’t they? Not that I can’t cope with them – of course not! Sometimes I think I’ll never get my head round them, but then – whoosh! – there I am, on the school run. Of course you do, you must do – and it suddenly hits me, and I just know what to do, I can see a way through, I…”

Sheepwool’s amused stare brings Fitch to a sudden halt.

“I’m glad you’ve taken to it so well, Fitch. Really, I am. I think you’d make a first-rate DI.”

Fitch smiles and relaxes, all in one gawkish movement. Sheepwool is inwardly alarmed – do such young girls make DI these days? Hang on – when she herself went for promotion she was only – what? Hardly any older than Fitch is now. Maybe a little younger. And Fitch isn’t really as young as she seems: it’s her freely animated nature that makes her seem the green girl, not any lack of talent or experience. But she’ll have to pull herself back, now and then, if she’s to succeed. Now is not the time to say such things, though, and it occurs to her, belatedly, that Fitch has come to see her for a reason. She sits back in her chair and cocks an eyebrow in Fitch’s direction. Detective Sergeant (for now) Elaine Fitch takes the hint.

“Yes – Ma’am – sorry to go on. But I came across something that might interest you, kind of ‘off the record’, really.” Sheepwool perks up. “You know, Ma’am, we never got to interview a few potential witnesses in the Bland case, before it was wound up? Well, one of them was Heather Franks, you know?”

Sheepwool nods. She has the sensation, as jarring as it is brief, of a trapdoor opening beneath her feet.

“Well, there I was, pushing the trolley round the supermarket, and I bump into her. Literally, just like that.”


“Yes. We were stuck in the dairy aisle. Bryony was whining about yoghurt, as usual. Eric was running around – he can be a holy terror! – and then – bang! – we run straight into this tall, dark woman who’s just stood there, in a daydream, right in front of the specialty cheeses. She turns, you know, and there’s the usual I’m-sorry-no-I’m-sorry-no-think-nothing-of-it routine, when her face just – just – well, just changed, as if she recognized me.

“Then I recognized her, of course – aren’t you Heather Franks, from the Institute, I asked? She went all a-fluster and tried to change the subject, so she never told me, but I’m convinced it was her. Tall woman. Big feet. I remember from the funeral, when she tripped over my bag in the aisle of the Church. Poor woman – seems we’re always bumping into each other. But then she said the weirdest thing.”

Fitch pauses, brows tense in recollection, making sure she recalls precisely the right words. “She said ‘I’m sorry, do I know you? I have a call to make. A Christmas call. From a window. No, from the sea. That’ll show him.’ And then she looked at me as if she’d said something she shouldn’t’ve. She went as red as a beetroot and ran for it. I wanted to call after her – she just abandoned her trolley, food in it and everything – but what she said was, well, so strange…”

Sheepwool sits back. A broad ray of sunshine spotlights a beam of dancing motes. “I have a call to make. A Christmas call. From a window. No, from the sea. That’ll show him”, she echoes, but more to herself than to Fitch. As she does so, she sees herself, briefly, as small as a speck of dust herself, smaller, riding on one of those dancing rays. But she brings herself back with disorienting force and looks directly at Fitch.


“Ma’am? I thought – well – it must have been Franks. The mystery woman who countered Morrison’s alibi. All about making calls, and from a window – that’s where she saw Morrison, from her window at the Institute. Just after Christmas – well, still in the holidays, at any rate, and…”

“But wasn’t Franks away for the holidays?”

“Yes, Ma’am – well, that’s what we thought. But all we know was that Janice Squearn saw her rush out on the twenty-first of December, and nobody saw her until the funeral. So who’s to say she wasn’t here – in town – all the time? We know someone saw Morrison leave the Institute at the time he said he was at home. It could’ve been Franks. After all, what was her alibi?”

Sheepwool smiles. Fitch will, indeed, make a very fine DI. But she has a question of her own. She has been nursing it for two months now, unable to articulate it in any way without seeming ridiculous. But the longer the words remain unframed, the more ornate the question seems to become, until she despairs of being able to ask it at all, ever. Perhaps – now that the case is closed – she can take Fitch into her confidence. “What about the ‘from the sea’ part, though?” she asks.

“Yes, Ma’am, I have to say, that puzzled me.”

“You know, Fitch, I’ve been turning things over in my head. All about the sea.”

“The sea, Ma’am?”

It is then that Sheepwool realizes how much one takes for granted. People who live by the sea – live by it, and die by it, and have it shape their entire lives – spend most of the time barely conscious that it is there at all. She’d read somewhere that the first thing that humans did as soon as they’d evolved, in the parched hinterlands of Africa, was head for the beach, where they learned how to harvest the bounties of the sea. That’s where they’d discovered art, and the beginnings of culture, and had taken the first steps on the long road to humanity. Even today, millions pay homage to their ancestors by re-enacting that ancestral journey: for all that they are laden with buckets and spades and deckchairs, they are every bit as sincere in their pilgrimage as those who advance on their knees to the shrine of Santiago de Compostela. (There’s a painting by Dalí that sums it all up, beautifully, she thinks – Christ, St John, and wide, deserted beaches…) But Fitch is one of those seasiders who have never lived far from the whisper of the surf. It is, perhaps, because she – Sheepwool – is an incomer, an inlander, that she is aware of the pervasive power of the sea. The power to pull people under, with inexorable, irresistible force. The power to leave others behind, keening forever on the strandline, like gulls.

“Yes, Fitch, the sea. Do you get time off for good behaviour these days?”

Fitch looks confused, but then she smiles and scans her watch.

“Yes, of course, I…”

“Well, so do I. Far too much time, in fact. So how about the Three Kings at lunchtime? I rather fancy a spritzer. My treat.”


As evening falls, Alex Beach is in the lab. Morrison has pulled some strings and her room is now much fuller than it had been just two months earlier: instead of two empty spaces, each with the potential to house a colleague, the lab now seems crammed to bursting.

Almost a third is occupied by new equipment, humming quietly, and the remaining space is more than filled by a technician called Valentina, small and dark, who is there to operate it. Which she does, with cold expedition, despite the occasional curse levelled at it in what Beach supposes is some eastern European language. Beach has never heard Valentina say much more in recognizable English than conventional phrase-book salutations, and her brooding countenance does not invite further intimacy. At first, Beach thinks that she would find the presence of another person in her laboratory intimidating – especially one with whom one can have no conversation. But she soon finds that Valentina understands instructions well enough, whether spoken or written, so Alex (to her shame) finds herself regarding Valentina as another piece of equipment, a computer, perhaps – an entity with whom one can have that kind of relationship made uneasy by mutual incomprehension, and limited by the constraints of the operating system.

Despite this (or, perhaps, because of it) Alex tends to keep different hours from Valentina, and has now become very largely nocturnal. She knows that Valentina lives somewhere in the Institute, in a room perhaps rather like her own, but she does not know where this might be and has made no effort to find out. Annoyed and perhaps slightly afraid of the technician, and finding herself (yet more shame!) jealous of breaking a solitude with which she has achieved some hard-fought accommodation, Alex now works from around eleven in the evening to around mid-morning the next day, after which she either shuffles up to her room or, as often as not, reclaims her long-unused bike and pedals the few miles inland to Morrison’s barn conversion. She likes the exercise, she tells herself, puffing through the brooding prairie between the Institute and the main road.

Nothing she might do to change things can ever make any dent on the robotic sterility of Morrison’s house, and she feels it would be unwise to try. But the hours she now keeps, and the toll taken, make its anonymity more welcoming than her cold and cluttered attic room, in the same way that travelling salesmen often prefer the unchallenging calm of commercial hotels to their inevitable return to family life, when they are first greeted by the barely disguised reproach of spouses forced to manage a house alone, the mulish children, the endless chores left undone by way of retaliation. And even when she and Morrison happen to coincide long enough to have sex, this, too, seems drained of any color: she has almost begun to regret the absence of the sudden violence which characterized their earlier encounters, and they now pursue the act almost without thought, still engaged in conversation, as if they were making tea or loading the dishwasher.

One evening, when Morrison had returned before she had left for the LPI, they had gone to bed, and afterwards, when Morrison was doing up his fly, his back to her, she had asked for the equipment she needed to get to work on carnostomid DNA, and his response was businesslike and immediate – sure, he had said, just write me a shopping list and I’ll have MagusPharm get it for you.

As simple as that.

And then he’d put on his jacket and left the bedroom, leaving absolutely no sign of his presence but for a faint smell of cologne.

The equipment had been installed two days later, and Valentina along with it. And here Alex is now, in the lab, sitting on the sofa at dead of night, reading the childlike scrawl of a person whose first alphabet was probably Cyrillic, spreading printouts before her, on the coffee table, and – first and last – reading an unsigned note in a different, slyly masculine hand.

Carnostomid DNA is like nothing she has ever seen, and at the same time it looks awfully familiar. At first she didn’t know what to make of it, until she dared take Garry Williams into her confidence. Williams, who has had a lifetime of genomic research and can read sequences like a virtuoso pianist can read Rachmaninov at sight. It is Garry’s note she’s now reading, and she is grateful that he has not signed it. Nonetheless, she’ll shred it as soon as she can.

Just in case it gets into the wrong hands.

‘Alex’, the note reads,

I’ve checked and double checked this and it’s the darnedest thing. You MUST repeat this, two or three times, in case of contamination. It’s vital that you get the work replicated someplace else to make sure. If I can do some runs for you on the sly, I shall, just ask. Or we can ship some to Berkeley, no questions asked. So I ran the BLAST searches and what you’ve got here is HUMAN DNA. Nothing else – no bacteria, no fungi, no nothing – not even any sequence that pops up as unknown. It’s weird. But it’s been shuffled up real strange, like all the exons have been taken out, introns excised, and the whole lot tied up with inverted repeats and put back in the wrong order like someone packing a bag in a hurry. Kind of like VDJ recombination, but then, not like that either. Let’s talk over a drink. After this I think I need it.

The reading is clear, Alex thinks. She and Valentina have accidentally sequenced their own DNA, haven’t done enough to check for the constant bugbear of contamination, and Garry is chiding her for it as gently as he can. But it’s a blow. But rather than do any more work, she leaves the lab and pilots a course up to her own room, now rarely visited. She blows dust off a mug and puts water on for some tea. This will have to be black – the milk in the fridge, neglected, is clotted with white, foul-smelling sediment and she’s had to sluice it away. While she’d about it, she finds herself tidying the small space and cleaning it to a sparkle it hasn’t seen in months. It is only when she is sitting at her desk once again, with her tea, a smell of bleach in her nostrils, that she realizes that this is only a kind of displacement activity. Carnostomids with a smorgasbord of human DNA? With weary resignation she realizes that she’s back to square one. She sighs, and closes her eyes. Look at your baby, Alex. It’s all your fault.

And then, two rows of tiny, grinning teeth, in human shape. With enamel. No, she was right the first time. Yes, she’ll do all the work Garry has suggested, but no, she was right. And perhaps it is the smell of the bleach, or the rancid residue of the milk, or the excitement she feels, or a combination of all these things, but she feels her gorge rise and has to turn to the sink to throw up.

A minute later, pale and wobbly, she sits at the table again to sip her tea, hands round the warm mug as if it were a talisman. She hears the percussive bark of rain, re-started, on the window. And there’s a larger noise, more insistent, which takes some time to penetrate her fogged consciousness. It is a knock at the door.

It is Valentina, eyes wide, vulnerable, haunted – an expression so unlike the habitually self-assured scowl that Alex first takes it as belonging to a different person entirely.

“Please, Doctor Beach, you come,” she says. At Alex’s evident confusion, the tiny, dark woman becomes agitated. She seems to jump up and down on the spot, like an imp on a hotplate.

“Please, you come – you come now!” repeats Valentina, pulling Alex by both hands and dragging her from the room by main force. “I saw her fall!” she cries, turning, not waiting for any further questions. Alex has no option but to follow.

The corridors, the book-lined intestinal stairs, the main hallway in the half-light of failing chandeliers, all pass by in a blur as Alex chases her technician through the interstices of the building. And suddenly they are out, in the rain, the salt breeze an assault of refreshment after the building’s chronic claustrophobia. But Valentina does not pause for even half a second to appreciate this, and rushes out into the sheeting rain. Without stopping, or even slacking, Valentina heads to the staircase through the woods and down to the shore beneath the cliffs on which the Institute stands. The treacherous switchbacks of the steep, winding path are dangerous enough in daylight, but in this rainy dark the treads have become slippery, and Alex – no stranger to this twisting path – loses her footing several times during the descent, and saves herself from falling by grabbing hold of the occasional handrails – all of which are drunkenly loose through rot and rust, but still just about holding – and fortuitously placed vines and branches.

Alex and Valentina are now on the beach, lit only by the glow from the Institute far above and the ring of gas platforms on the distant horizon. At last, Valentina stops, and looks down at what Alex at first thinks is a pile of weed or dead-man’s fingers. The clotted clouds are picked out in charcoal shades as the rain eases, and the moon and stars emerge from the murk. But Alex, the pursuit over, is soaked through, covered in mud, her clothes stuck to her body in filthy, sodden planes, angry at being taken on what seems to have been a wild goose chase by a madwoman. Panting for breath, Alex stands forward, hands on her knees, pulling in oxygen almost despite herself. But Valentina, as wet and dirty as she is, simply stands over her prize and bawls at Alex over the howling surf. “Doctor Beach! You come! You come now!”

And so she does, staggering the last dozen yards of scrunching shingle.

At their feet, crumpled, broken, in a pool of what in the shadows Alex takes to be dark blood, is a body, limbs thrown and broken, eyes open in red-rimmed pools.

It is the body of Heather Franks.