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Fiction

Unearthing the bottomless

By The Sea: Part III, Chapter 2

Henry Gee 7 October 2007

www.lablit.com/article/309

Dead men tell no tales.
And dead women are just as silent.

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 Two

Sheepwool’s caseload unravels until it fades out altogether. More liaisons with the suave Gerry Rammell from Customs and Excise concerning the adulteration of spirits at the Dazed Haddock had once again come to nothing. So she decides to take a couple of days’ leave, just tidying up, reading and thinking. She treats herself to an exhibition of Max Ernst paintings at Norwich Castle Museum, finding them satisfyingly unsettling – but the more she looks at the ghoulishly animated picnic feasts, the elephants made of giant vacuum cleaners, the mice and small girls in mazes of what look like melted candle wax, the more her mind turns inward on itself, catching the frayed ends of the Bland case.

Which is why, the evening before she is due to return to work, the arrival of Methwold at her front door seems less unexpected than the working out of a premonition. He offers flowers, but even from behind the ramparts of his glasses, he finds it hard to meet her gaze, as if he were an errant husband seeking absolution for some infraction too minor to be worth consideration. She stifles a smile, invites him in and looks for a vase.

On the threshold, he says, “I owe you an apology.”

“Whatever for?” She is busy in the kitchen, heedless that he seems to stand in the hall, lost in space, as if seeking further permission to enter. She returns to the hall, and they stand there, as motionless as sculptures, looking at each other, each daring the other to make the first move.

“Sorry to disturb you on your holiday.”

“That’s quite all right, Sir.”

“Off duty, Sheepwool. Off duty. You can call me ‘Ivan’.”

“Then…Ivan…you have to call me ‘Percy’. And please, do, come in, sit down,” – she indicates her living room with its spare but stylish sofa and armchairs – “and I’ll make tea.”

“Thank you…Percy. That would be lovely.” But instead of taking his lonely course towards the living room, he follows her into her kitchen and sits at the table. Ever the policeman, she thinks – never as comfortable as in an interview room, in an upright chair, at a plain table, solid protection against criminals, suspects and the great unknown.

As the kettle boils, he tells her of the Institute’s latest victim.

“I didn’t apologise for disturbing you, Percy, not really – though I did, I mean…” He makes as if to start again. “You see, the thing is, I’d like you to handle this latest case. Probably nothing to do with Bland, you know, but two deaths at the same Institute in just four months, well…

“And then, you see, Elaine Fitch came to see me this afternoon. Don’t know how she finds the time, with her exams, and her family, and her caseload…” (Sheepwool knows that Fitch has been investigating a midnight knifing outside a kebab shop in Thetford, forging a new self-confidence from the blood and the violence) “…but she’s been adding two and two, and, well, maybe some of those loose ends we let hang. You know, last time. Bland.”

Methwold looks so unsettled – had she known better she’d finger him as guilty, though of what, she cannot imagine – that she restrains herself from loosing the torrent of questions that she has been forced to keep to herself. About how they failed to pin down Morrison’s alibi, a failure which could, if examined critically, have led to this, a second death. And about the late Dr Franks’ strange encounters with Fitch, in which the plainly (it now seems) troubled academic practically admitted that she was the informant who had blown Morrison’s cover. Most of all, of their failure to trace Franks at a crucial time, leaving questions open that cannot, now, be satisfactorily resolved. Could Franks have murdered Bland? Or at least contributed to his death in some way? And if not, given the circumstances, what, precisely, had killed Bland? ‘Natural Causes’ is no more a solution than any other universe of possibilities – Sheepwool has learned that much from the extravagant profusion of nature displayed at the Institute. Franks had had the opportunity and possibly even a motive, and successfully sent the Police up what might have been a false trail. And now she is gone. Even suicide is doubtful for, as (Methwold explains) Franks left no obvious note. And if not suicide, then…?

Dead men tell no tales. And dead women are just as silent.

But Sheepwool says none of these things out loud. Instead, she sits down at the table opposite Methwold, reflecting for a fleeting moment that the strange blue thoughts she’s been having, as if glanced from the corner of her mind, are too unformed to share with Methwold, even if one can extend a confidence to a junior colleague – and friend – in the pub at lunchtime. Or try to, at any rate. She had done her best to explain her vague unease to Fitch, but the blueness in her mind did not translate very easily into words and, feeling foolish, she had let Fitch steer the subject of their infrequent conversations to more routine matters.

“Fitch…Elaine…came straight out with it,” Methwold continues. “That Morrison and Beach are up to something, together. Beach was the first, or almost the first, to have found the bodies both times, and the fact that Morrison lied about the first time raises more suspicions now…” He pauses, hands waving weakly in the air, as if he were a sea anemone confronted with a Platonic ideal.

“Even if there wasn’t enough to go on last time?” Sheepwool does her best to keep a hardness from her voice. Much to her surprise she succeeds, for Methwold smiles, unexpectedly. It occurs to Sheepwool that she has rarely seen Methwold display any kind of emotion that might fall outside the compass of professional self-assuredness. This stirs a mixture of emotions in her, in response – of fascination, and also of terror, as if discovering flaws in something taken for granted as utterly reliable.

“Quite. Yes, perhaps, but there’s more. Fitch. She’s been digging around a little, even after the Bland case closed. Digging after Morrison.” Sheepwool smiles, partly to encourage Methwold, but also in satisfaction. Good for Fitch. No detective ever succeeded without, sometimes, a strategic disregard for standing orders.

“Fitch told me that the fact that she’s been…well, otherwise occupied, has delayed things, but the more she unearths, the more she finds it a bottomless pit. I should never have doubted you, Percy – there’s something shady about Morrison. He was dismissed from an academic post a few years back for something nasty, unethical…though the closer Fitch says she gets to it, the harder it is to pin down.”

“So, he is up to something.”

“Possibly. Or, at least, he was. But what it has to do with Bland’s death – or Franks’ – is not at all clear. Not at all. That’s what you and Fitch should find out. Starting tomorrow morning.”

“And my other caseload? And Elaine’s?”

“Will be taken care of.”

This time they both smile, a coincidence that strikes them both, at once, and from which they both recoil.

**********

Methwold’s departure a few minutes later leaves Sheepwool at once deflated and, curiously, content. She puts this down to the sensation of being put back in harness, self-esteem restored after weeks of idleness.

Nothing like the thought of a job in hand to raise one’s spirits.

As she clears up the tea things, she remembers that what irked Fitch the most about the closing stages of the Bland case was their seeming inability to learn anything much about Franks. Now was the time to make amends for that omission, if it were not too late. Something that Methwold had said, just before he left, rolls round her mind. About Bland’s previous, and something else Fitch had recalled, from talking to Janice Squearn, perhaps. That Bland had been pestering every woman at the Institute: all except Franks, and that was because she had been pestering him.

Finally she arranges Methwold’s flowers. Chrysanthemums, a dull, dusty pink. The colour of municipal funerals.

**********

Deringland must be taking mysterious deaths in its stride, for hardly have Sheepwool and Fitch put down their coats and bags and fired up the coffee percolator the next morning than they get a call. Fitch takes it: Sheepwool, looking across the room, notices a new poise in her junior colleague.

“Ma’am? That was Jim Levy. He says that if we’re not ‘too busy’” – she smiles as she says this, but the smile signs experience rather than levity – “then we should meet him in a couple of hours. ‘Something to our advantage’, he said.”

“Very good, Fitch. Where? The Haddock?” Sheepwool remembers the discomfort of meeting Levy in the cramped and inhospitable Station, and earnestly desires somewhere else for their conference.

“No: somewhere else. Have you ever been to the Barking Lobster?”

**********

The Barking Lobster is tucked away in a tiny mews in the centre of Deringland. Although a matter of yards from the seafront, its seclusion borders on the secretive. The pub does not open on the street, but is found at the blind end of a maze of dirty, bin-strewn back alleys which one is always surprised to learn are public thoroughfares. Girt all round by fisherman’s cottages – some derelict, a few restored by incomers to a state of embalmed kitsch they never enjoyed in real life – the tiny door to the public bar gives on to a cobbled lane so narrow that it is impossible to get the measure of the building from the outside, by virtue of one’s inability to step far enough away from it to look at all of it at once. For the Barking Lobster is, as it happens, fairly extensive, burrowing from its deceptively simple ground-floor bar to occupy several rooms upstairs and in adjoining cottages. The resulting warren of half-shadowed nooks and snugs would be attractive to a predictable clientele, Sheepwool thinks, wondering why, as a police officer, she has never heard of it before.

She stoops to pass through the street door, unmarked save for the unconventionally adulterated licensing sign on the eye-level lintel – ‘G. de Nerval, licenced to sell intoxicating liquors for consumption on or off the premises or wherever you bloody well like.’

The interior is as black as the inside of a poacher’s pocket, and even after a minute or so, Sheepwool can discern very little amid the gloom. She hears Jim Levy’s voice as if it is jarringly, intimately close, for all that she cannot see him: “Ah! Here you are! An odd choice, I know, but the beer is better than the Haddock”.

Sheepwool is not really conscious how, but in a moment they are seated in a small upstairs room, big enough only for three worn armchairs, a small dark-wood table; peeling, scabrous paint the colour of bile, and a print of marine life which cannot be clearly seen in the weak light offered by a small, low-silled window looking over a courtyard full of barrels and refuse. From the little she can see of the picture – just a small corner, really – Sheepwool is grateful for not being able to see any more, Max Ernst notwithstanding. Three pints of bitter (“no half measures here, Inspector, and whatever you do, don’t ask for a spritzer!” Levy had cautioned) were on the table to greet them. Sheepwool cannot remember having seen a barman, nor indeed of Levy having placed an order. Such are the perks of being a regular, she imagines.

Levy sits closest to the window: later, Sheepwool wonders if she had imagined it, but at the time she was convinced that the pathologist stole a glance through its grimy panes before speaking. Just to be sure. He turned to the two women, conspiratorially: “To business.” The subsequent pause falls between them like a shroud. Fitch is first to catch its falling corner.

“Doctor Levy…?”

Sheepwool sits back and says nothing, content to let her Detective Sergeant take the lead. Slightly irritated with herself, her mind is full of a kind of non-specific yearning, punctuated by the image of dusty pink chrysanthemums, multiplied and rotating as if in a child’s kaleidoscope.

“Well, it’s like this. The SOCOs got to the beach beneath the cliffs as soon as they could – much later and the tide would have swept everything away. They had to bring the body to the morgue in Norwich. So, naturally, they called me.” Levy pauses to draw on his pint. Sheepwool weighs the balance between theatricality and thirst, and chooses the former. Levy wipes his mouth with the worn cuff of his tweed jacket.

“When I say ‘fell’, that’s exactly what I mean. The injuries – compound fractures of both legs, mainly – are consistent with a fall from a great height. Franks lived in a room on the fourth floor of the Institute, which has a sea view, you might say. It could hardly be closer – that’s where the building stands directly on top of the cliffs. Leans over them, really – if you knew that beach you’d say there was an overhang. You can even see parts of the foundations poking through. Really, they should close the place down – certainly, that stretch of beach should be off limits – the Institute is only a storm away from toppling. But then, that’s just my opinion.”

Not just yours, Sheepwool thinks to herself, remembering Morrison’s own candid analysis of his dilemma as Director.

“But I digress. Franks’ window was hanging open, and from there she’d have a clear drop to the beach of eighty, even ninety meters.”

Fitch leans forward to echo the pathologist’s pose. “But did she jump? Or was she pushed?”

“Was it suicide, Detective Sergeant? That’s really your business. But I think I can say that she didn’t die from a fall. Neither was she pushed. But were I pushed, I’d say she was driven to jump. She could even have been dead before she hit the ground.”

Another pause for effect. The sun peeps between the clouds and sends a timid shaft through the window, illuminating Levy, and nothing else except for a faint blonde halo around Fitch’s crown. Sheepwool smiles to herself – this man has missed his métier. There must be an amateur dramatics group, somewhere in Norfolk, desperately short of a pantomime villain…but Sheepwool is content to rest in the shadows.

“When I got to the morgue, I had a kind of sneak preview. A biopsy.”

“Were you…?”

“Allowed? Probably not, strictly. But – now, you didn’t hear it from me – well, you know, Higher Authorities. After the Bland case. Basically, we have to get on with it. Not to beat around the bush, but Franks’ insides are a mess. Just like Bland’s were. Some kind of massive reaction resulting in the total liquefaction of the body cavity. I reckon Franks felt it coming and pitched herself through the window to…er…ease her passing.”

The sun goes in again and the room is plunged into dusk, as if the light were suddenly sucked out of it. This time both Sheepwool and Fitch sample their beers. Fitch looks up immediately, with a sour face; Sheepwool finds she rather likes the taste. It has an appealing astringency. “Yes, Doctor Levy,” she says, “you’re right. This beer is good. What’s it called?”

“We’re lucky. It’s a guest beer they get in just now and again. It’s called ‘Merry Mermaid’. Watch it – it’s stronger than you think! And before you ask, Detective Sergeant, yes, I think that the two deaths are linked. The pathologies, the symptoms. Too much to be a coincidence. I’d say the same in court. Here’s to ‘Merry Mermaid’. Cheers.” Levy raises his glass.

“And that’s why I was able to get in so quickly. One baffling death is just that – a one-off. But two? Well, I’ve taken some samples to send to the various laboratories, but frankly, they’ve still to get over being foxed by Bland.”

“I suppose the Coroner…” Fitch starts, uncertainly, her resolve wavering.

“Natural causes. You’re dead right, Detective Sergeant. But we know that there’s a great world of nature out there, most of it unknown, some extremely dangerous, and a lot of it crammed into the Institute. Just imagine if it all fell into the sea – it hardly bears thinking about.”

“So if it’s not murder…”

“Most unlikely, Detective Sergeant. But it’s no fluke either. There’s something in that Institute that’s got loose and poisoning the people who work there. We’ll probably never know what it is. By the time we’ve sampled and tested everything that place contains, we’d be buried up to here in corpses.” He waves his hands above his head, to indicate total immersion. “Well, you already know my opinion on the Institute. It’s got to be shut down. Now. Not that anyone would ever do so, on this evidence – it’s just too strange.”

Not for the first time, Sheepwool feels that the coast of Norfolk really does stand at the very lip of the abyss.

“Anyway, drink up. I’ve got to get back to Norwich. I wish you well in this case, I really do. If you need me, you know where to find me.” Levy drains his glass in a final, luxurious draught, and gets up to leave. Sheepwool and Fitch, their beers half drunk, start to follow, but Levy waves them down. “No, don’t get up. Enjoy the Merry Mermaid. While you can. She really can’t be hurried!”

Framed by the doorway, he turns abruptly. “Oh yes – silly me! – I almost forgot.The plot thickens!”

Sheepwool reckons Levy is good for at least three curtain calls. The pathologist turns and resumes his seat – another ray of sunshine joins him, this time illuminating the rags of foam as they slither slowly down the inside of his empty glass.

“Did you know that Heather Franks had gender reassignment surgery?" he said. "Franks was once a man."

Fitch sits up, the fleeting passage of shock across her face replaced with hard realization, eyes bright, jaw set in the triumph of certainty.'

“I knew it. You only had to look at her feet. His feet, I mean.” She giggles. Sheepwool can’t remember when she last heard that sound. She smiles, too, and so does Levy. He decides to stay for another pint. And so they remain, while the sun circles, dancing on the edge of the unknown.