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Fiction

The scarlet in her mind

By The Sea: Part III, Chapter 3

Henry Gee 14 October 2007

www.lablit.com/article/311

It had been hard to explain her intuition that the death must have had some direct connection with the sea

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.

Advisory: this chapter contains explicit sexual references

Chapter Three

This time Sheepwool and Fitch take no chances. They interview everyone they can think of, as soon as possible…and get nowhere. Fitch digs once more into the Morrisonian hinterland, and is often on the phone until well past her usual clocking-off time. Every time she delves into the inquiry that saw Morrison dismissed from his earlier scientific post, she hits a brick wall. She desperately wants to interview those whose evidence damned him – but their identities are buried behind a wall of anonymity which not even the Police can shift.

As for Franks, everyone has a cast-iron alibi, even Morrison, who was at a MagusPharm-sponsored seminar at the University of East Anglia when Franks fell. Alex, ever a prime suspect, convinces Sheepwool and Fitch that the first she saw of Franks’ body was when Valentina had shown it to her, on the beach, just after midnight. Valentina herself provides corroboration.

Heather Franks’ room – just down the hall from Alex’s garret – has been combed, to no avail. No suicide note. Not even (as they had half-expected) deranged letters to Bland, unsent. And definitely nothing to implicate Franks in Bland’s death.

All that they are able to discover is that the person who had achieved a first degree under the name of Harold Franks had, by the time of gaining a doctorate, changed his gender completely and convincingly. All (as Fitch loves to recall) except for his feet.

The inquest is even swifter than that for Bland, but comes to the same conclusion.

The case is once more wound up, and this hits Sheepwool with some force the very next day, when she arrives at the Station, full of energy and expectation of a full day’s work, and – just in the act of hanging up her coat on the back of the door – realizes that she has, once more, nothing to do. It catches her, freezing her in a kind of self-made tableau. That restless unease, that depression, that…void. No, Percy, she says to herself – you cannot go there, you cannot even look at it. You must find something else to do instead. At that moment she decides that the long-postponed chat with Alex Beach should be postponed no longer, but as she turns to reach for her coat she sees it, out of the corner of an eye.

A flash of blue.

She turns to look at it directly, but it has gone.

**********

“You’re lucky to have caught me, Inspector,” says Alex Beach, hardly turning from the bench as Sheepwool enters, face focussed fully on her task. To Sheepwool, Alex seems to be depositing tiny but precisely measured quantities of a clear liquid into a honeycomb stack of very tiny plastic vials, using what looks like an oversized syringe. She could for all the world be an ichneumon injecting her own eggs into the pupae of some larger and less fortunate insect. Only now does Sheepwool notice that the lab seems much busier, fuller, than it had been the last time she called. Benches crammed with shining equipment are surmounted by racks to which all kinds of tubes are pinioned, with shelves above bustling with white plastic jars with big green lids. It looks like a color negative of a hotel kitchen.

Task completed, Alex turns, and Sheepwool notices the change in her. No more the slightly distracted ingénue – now the fully fledged scientist, big blue-gray eyes shining with new confidence in the cream-white face. First Fitch, now Alex Beach. These young women are growing up. Taking over. Soon be time for the slippers-and-pipe routine, Sheepwool reflects. But what would she do then, to keep the demons at bay?

“I was just clocking off,” Alex says, and in response to Sheepwool’s raised eyebrow: “I usually do the night shift. Fancy some fresh air?”

Rather than take the long switchback through the woods and down to the beach (Alex confesses that since the Franks business, she’s rather gone off it) the women leave the Institute, cross the car park and take a level path directly to the rim of the cliffs. There, in the lee of a large bank of gorse bushes, is a wooden municipal bench. This has been fastened securely to a monumental slab of concrete and decorated with a brass plate reading ‘To the Memory of Ralph Willoughby’. No dates are given. As they sit down, Alex says that she always wonders who Ralph Willoughby might have been, that his heirs should dedicate a bench to him in this lonely place (for all that the view over the sea ahead, and the town to their left – the west – is spectacular).

Now that they are here, now that Sheepwool has Alex all to herself, she wonders where to start. It had been hard enough trying to explain her intuitions to Fitch. That the death of Bland was not a murder – how could it be, given the symptoms? – but must have had some direct connection with the sea. Something unknown, but equally, something with which the Institute was familiar. Indeed, something for which the Institute was well known, and in which its founder took pride.

Something which rose to the surface of her mind, something last heard bathed in Gerry Rammell’s honey-voiced chatter. He was so convinced that the liquor at the Dazed Haddock had been spiked, he said, that he was sure he couldn’t account for where it all came from. For all he knew, he said, he’d not be surprised if someone had been skimming the preserving fluid from Pickled Lily!

She had tried to explain it all to Fitch, many times, but the words seemed to clog up in her throat: she was half ashamed of it, as if she were admitting some secret vice, pleading, trying to seek the approval of one’s subordinate. Fitch was plainly discomfited by this unaccustomed note of – what was it? supplication? – in Sheepwool’s voice. That flash of blue kept on teasing, laughing at her.

Sometimes, Sheepwool thinks, you go through life completely blind to some feature of environmental furniture so common that your senses tune it out, until the moment when the subject comes up and, sensitized, you see it everywhere – in road signs, billboards, newspapers, T-shirts, the shapes of clouds. You hear snatches of conversation – on the radio, in the street, at work – in which the very subject just happens to be mentioned.

The other night, for instance, she found herself at home and sufficiently bored to have switched on her television set. When the picture swam into view, she realized it was a commercial for a car, in which the shining vehicle was plunging in and out of the waves accompanied by mermaids. She’d switched off before the commercial had finished.

The very next day, in town, she had passed a shop displaying seaside wares for those tourists robust enough to brave Deringland’s late-spring weather. Buckets and spades, blue or red, with images of mermaids picked out in cheap gold paint. And then there was Jim Levy’s favourite drop – Merry Mermaid. It was all too much.

But then there was Franks.

At this point Sheepwool looks up, tunes herself back into the world, sees the rim of the cliffs just a few feet ahead of her, startled. Then she realizes that Alex Beach has taken the problem away, for she is already far ahead in what seems like a ceaseless monologue, of titres and aliquots, of plates and gels, things called ‘gilsons’ and ‘micro-arrays’, and other technical impedimenta of science.

“Isn’t that strange, Inspector?” she concludes.

“Strange? I’m sorry, Alex…what is?” Alex turns round and smiles in a way that Sheepwool can only interpret as indulgence. She notices that Alex’s face glows even more warmly out here, in the open air. Perhaps it is only the freshening wind, but Alex’s cheeks seem fuller, pinker, than they had before.

“What you’ve said. That Heather Franks was really a genetic male.”

“Yes, Alex. It is. Strange. But what…?”

“Don’t you see, Inspector? It all fits, now.”

“It does?”

“Yes…Well, it’s only my wild theory, anyway. That all the deaths – everything that’s happened – happened to genetic males, and…”

“All the deaths? I was aware of just two, Alex. First, Bland, and now Franks. Are you telling me that there have been more? More – that we’ve missed?”

Alex first looks confused, then slightly – what was it? Affronted? – and then sighs. That indulgent smile again – Sheepwool is beginning to think she’s back in nursery school, with a fresh young teacher not as yet disabused of that lets-all-be-bunnies voice reserved for the most diffident toddlers. But Sheepwool soon has cause to forgive Alex, for what she then reveals is interesting. Very interesting indeed.

About the Spaniel, the ship during whose research voyage Alex’s specimens – carnostomids – had been collected, and in which several sailors died from a mysterious contagion whose symptoms looked very like those described by Jim Levy.

And even more interesting (if even more difficult to corroborate), the wild tale of Obed Marsh and the mermaid, after whose killing – murder – the sailors seemed to start dying in much the same way.

Mermaids and cars. Mermaids on seaside buckets. Merry mermaids. Merry, murderous mermaids. Sheepwool tries to keep it all in focus.

“Don’t you see, Inspector? All the people who died were men. This is a kind of illness that affects men only. Sure, all the sailors were men, but there are accounts of women, too – especially in the Obed Marsh story – but there is no mention of their ever getting any disease. Not even the…um…prostitutes in the various ports, and…”

“Mermaids,” says Sheepwool, interrupting.

“The…what?” Alex replies, and the sickly smile is instantly replaced by a species of hardness, eyes glinting. Sheepwool senses that she has hit the spot, as wild and as unlikely as it seems. Alex flusters, then, and backtracks.

“Of course, it’s only a silly idea. This link between the Spaniel, and Obed Marsh’s story – completely over-the-top – and the deaths of Dr Bland and Dr Franks…”

“Did you know her? Heather Franks?”

“No – not very well. She seemed very wound up. She was clearly in love with Dr Bland. Perhaps her death could have been suicide, if it hadn’t been for…”

“But it wasn’t suicide, was it, Alex? She was poisoned – infected – with these things, these…carnostomids. How do you think that might have happened?”

“Well, I suppose she must have drunk some. But I can’t imagine how she could have got hold of them, except from the preserved specimens in the Spaniel collection that Morrison and I have been working on. But, you know, in the Obed Marsh account, they talk of the mermaid being preserved in rum, and the sailors, maybe, drinking from her barrel, and…Oh my goodness, Inspector.” Alex flushes. Her eyes widen.

“You know, Inspector, what Obed Marsh called the mermaid? She had a name, you know, it was…the same as the label…Surely, it can’t be?”

“Morrison?”

Alex looks puzzled, aghast. “Morrison? No, the mermaid was called…”

“No, Alex, you mentioned that you had been working on the specimens – the carnostomids – with Dr Morrison. Really, I had no idea. I wonder if you’d like to tell me all about it? Perhaps we can walk into town together. To the Station. Or I could ask Detective Sergeant Fitch to bring the car round.”

Alex directs a brazen stare at Sheepwool. At first, Sheepwool reads it as a look of frankly incomprehending incredulity. But Sheepwool has given up trying to read the many faces of this young woman in whom, she feels, external expressions have become ever more divorced from internal motivation.

**********

Miss Rebecca Lowdley-Purring has done her best to cover her tracks. Taking as little as possible, and leaving her room at the dead of night during a New Moon, she swirls a travelling cloak around her, gathers up a bag of only those belongings from which she cannot bear to be parted and picks her way along the cliff-top track which leads, by slow degrees, down to Deringland. There is almost no light, and she can hardly even see her own feet as she makes her careful way along the path. But she knows this path well, and steers herself by sound, for the sea is up, and the crash of the surf on her right seems at first to come from almost directly beneath her feet.

As the path weaves westward, it descends slowly to sea level until she is on the beach beneath the cliffs that lie below Deringland church and its skirted burial ground. The building now looms beside her, to the left, a patch of deeper shade against the night. Beside the church is the steep, cobbled gangway for the crowded fishing boats. Their shadowed shapes are large and threatening, and the smell that emanates from them – of rotting fish, and the sweat and toil and death of men – is all the more intense in the absence of light. Past the boats and landward, the gangway leads upwards through the small, sleeping town, to an Inn – the Dazy Haddock, she believes it’s called, where – at daybreak – she will be able to board a mail-coach to Norwich. After that, she has a vague plan to seek refuge among her mother’s relatives in London – she has an address in Bedford Square – where she will tell all. Of her humiliation. Of her…shame.

If she can bear even to speak of it.

She settles down in a nook behind some barrels just outside the door of the inn. The cubbyhole is damp, and smells of rot and stale beer, but it will be daylight soon: she spends some time reflecting that a person such as herself would never have entertained the thought of crouching in such squalor, in such circumstances, but recent events have accustomed her to such degradation. She is appalled that she might have become hardened to it. The revelation sends a chill through her body, cold and stiff as it is, but it is followed by a more concrete sensation. Of hard hands, and lifting arms, and a rough rag placed across her face. The rag smells of tobacco and brandy and something sweet she doesn’t recognize, and she knows no more, until a sharp blow across her face brings the world into view once again.

Sickeningly so, for as she wakes and looks round, her face, indeed her whole head, is pounding with an agonizing throb, her throat shrieking with the pain of razors, she finds that there is, after all, no escape. She is chained to the wall, spread-eagled, as she so often is, in her father’s private rooms.

She looks down. She discerns that her body is slick with blood. She has the impression that she is bleeding from her nose, her throat, and possibly her eyes or her scalp, for she blinks often, and it is through a reddish haze. She cannot wipe away the blood, for her hands are manacled, splayed above her, as are her legs below. She does not need to inquire further whether she is clothed, because she knows, from long and dreary experience, that she is not: and that the shape moving – pacing – before her, is her father, and behind him are mounds of the remains of animals, birds, fishes, and people, either whole or disarticulated or in various stages of unnatural reunion.

One corpse, in particular, draws her imperfect gaze, partly because it is set directly in front of her, propped up, as if deliberately placed there for her inspection. It is of a large fish, or, at least, it has the tail of a fish, attached to the torso of a small, wizened woman – or, she assumes as much – with sunken eye sockets, lank hair, skin blackened with decay, and the grinning, sharp-toothed gape of death. Her father halts before her, blotting out the apparition.

“Needs some improvement, do you not think? ‘Pickled Lily,’ she was called! But that dastard rogue Marsh sold me a pup. A real mermaid, indeed! How could I have been so foolish? Not worth the sovereigns I paid that dago dotard Casares to collect. Hardly worth even throwing away.”

Rebecca whimpers as if in answer, but she finds her tongue doesn’t work properly, as if it is too small, just a stub of its full extent – and her mouth is full of blood, as if several of her teeth had been knocked out. Instead of saying anything remotely coherent, she lets slip a slaver of bloody drool.

“Nothing to say, eh, Rebecca? That is just as well, for we cannot have you telling people of our little soirées down here, can we? Our little gatherings? And what would we do, Rebecca, my friends and I, without your satisfying entertainment? What would we do? Wonderful satisfying, it is, wonderful satisfying! In fact, my guests remark that you always give such perfect satisfaction. But you cannot tell it, Rebecca – upon my word, you cannot! Which is why I have had to perform a little surgery. On your tongue.” He waves a hank of crimson flesh before her, fresh blood running over his fingers, and then flings it into the general melée of crimsoned refuse behind him.

Rebecca feels faint, as if the room is beginning to slide about. Or perhaps it is she herself. She is not sure.

“And you did not feel it? Good! I have now perfected a technique for rendering a subject insensible during the most egregious of procedures. A chemical technique. And you, my dear, have been the first human subject. I offer my congratulations!” Sir Frideric comes closer, leers, touches a fat finger to a bloodshot, bulging nose. He whispers in her face – the stench of brandy is overpowering. “Cuts down the screaming, don’t you know! And that’s something my guests just can’t abide. Upon my word, they cannot! So while I had you to myself, as it were, I extracted as much as I could of your larynx, too. A very delicate operation, if I say so myself. Didn’t want to occlude your windpipe. I wanted you still to be able to breathe! After all, my dear, you have to be alive, even for just a little longer. While we say our goodbyes.”

Rebecca closes her eyes. She knows what is going to happen next and, indeed, subsequent events follow the weary path with miserable familiarity. The rip of her father’s breeches. The lurch of her father’s body against her own, the sound of his porcine grunts, the stench of his breath – a testament to many well-fortified meals – and, in a moment, the feeling of him inside her, forcing from her body an unwilling slickness until she can, mercifully, no longer feel his thrusts, his spasmodic climax and, as he fades, so does she, as the scarlet in her mind fades slowly to black, and all other sensation gone, she hears him, as if from a great distance: “You were always such a good little girl, Rebecca – such a good little girl.”

Her last sensation on Earth is the sound of her father breaking down in great, wrack-lunged sobs as he screams her name.