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Fiction

Stranded on the shore

By the Sea: Part III, Chapter 4

Henry Gee 21 October 2007

www.lablit.com/article/313

Some things must be thrown back into 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.

Chapter Four

Garrison Williams puts another coin in the juke and selects Hotel California. Something is not right, tonight. Something has disturbed the routine he has so carefully cultivated. A routine which he feels he needs, since Bev died, to keep pointing full ahead, in case he turns and sees that tiny but malevolent shadow, that silhouette, ever on the far horizon, in case it is far closer than he’s feared, and it will consume him.

Well, actually, two things.

The first is that he hasn’t seen Alex lately. Not that she works in his lab much any more, not now The Dwarf has tricked hers out like a proper laboratory. Or more like a lab in an RKO picture. Heck, she even has an Igor to fetch the bodies. But it’s sad – he misses her company more than he thought he would. Or, more to the point, more than he feels he can afford. The many facets of Alex Beach taunt him, parading across his mind’s eye, across the unsupped bottle of Grolsch and the untouched packet of Reds on the bar.

The strange way she has of bringing up a topic kind of halfway through, as if you’d missed the beginning, but hadn’t really, and he has to ask her to backtrack, and they always end up laughing. And her laugh, and the way her pale cheeks curve and fill and dimple when she laughs, and the way she cocks her head to one side after laughing, and the way she gets up off a lab stool, jeans hanging low; bending over so her tits swing loose beneath her shirt, the way her hips sway as she crosses a room, the way…oh, hell, he thinks, he could go on and on like this, and probably will.

Or would, but for the other thing. And that’s more urgent.

For there is a craving deeper, older, and even more ritualized than his private fantasies about Alex Beach.

Garrison Williams is Waiting for the Man.

God, he’s tried to kick it, like he kicked acid in the sixties, horse in the seventies, rocks in the eighties, even meth in the nineties. But this is a habit too hard to break. So now, he gives in. He knows that he only needs the flimsiest excuse to advance as justification. His is the fact that Bev has gone. Bev, who used to check him over, police him, confront him with suspicious little packets of white dust (or brown dust, or black dust, whatever) – and forgive him.

Bev, who used to keep him on the level.

Bev, who would find him, in whatever goddamned awful state, at whatever hour, clean him up, bail him out, and cradle his head to her breast like the baby he knows he is, and tell him everything was gonna be OK. Bev, whom he brings to mind every time Alex Beach laughs. Oh Bev, lovely, adorable Bev. How he misses her now. She was the safety net that no longer exists, just when he needs it most. Just when he’s fallen in love with the big one. Surfer’s Delight. Splash. Smash. The ‘T’ You Can Really Taste.

TubeWave.

Oh yes, Garrison Williams is Waiting for the Man, all right. What concerns him – he’d go far as to say, worries him – is that the Man in question is late. And this is the one appointment that the Man, unreliable in so many other ways, never misses. Not ever.

Except today.

The name of this man? Every town has one like him – part-time barman, part-time janitor, full-time backdoor man, rogue, fence, pimp, smuggler, money-launderer, unacknowledged father of indeterminately many rat-faced urchins, burglar, beggar-man, thief – and pusher. Oh yes, you can find one in every town, if you look under enough rocks. This one is called Bob Honeypott.

Garrison breaks the seal on the Reds, tips one out and lights up. His right hand shakes, holding the lighter. He tries to ignore the tremor.

**********

“Sir?”

“Sheepwool. No, please, come in. Sit down. What’s on your mind? Gerry Rammell again?”

“No, Sir, it’s – well, I apologise for raising the issue again, but…”

“The deaths at the Institute. I think that case is closed. Has to be.”

“Of course, Sir. But one or two other things have since come to light. Irrespective of the status of the case – and I agree with you completely, Sir – I felt you should be kept informed.”

You, of all people.

The huge dark-framed spectacles look up at her then, the eyes within imploring her to say more, but at the same time helpless before the wave, dreading it.

“Go on.”

“Sir, as you know, I have had a long, on-the-record interview with Alex Beach.”

“Thank you, Sheepwool. I have seen the transcript.”

“Good, Sir, I am glad. From that interview you will see that Beach and Morrison have been working closely on these agents – these…er…‘carnostomids’ – which we now think are strongly implicated in the deaths of both Bland and Franks.”

“I see…”

“In my opinion, Sir, we should seek an interview with Dr Morrison. A formal interview. For the record. As corroboration, if nothing else.”

“On what pretext, Sheepwool, would we do that? We can’t just barge in and…well, like you did with Alex Beach. A bit close to the wind, that…”

“Sir, there is the matter of Morrison’s alibi – or non-alibi – concerning Bland’s death. And the fact – or, at least, strong supposition – that it was Heather Franks who blew his cover.”

“And that she was the next to go. From the same supposedly ‘natural’ causes.”

“Yes, Sir. These natural causes being related to the…er…specimens that both Beach and Morrison were working on. To which they alone had regular access.”

A pause.

“Sheepwool, have you actually charged Dr Beach with anything? Conspiracy? Accessory? Jaywalking? Anything at all?”

“No, Sir.” Sheepwool is alerted to the unwonted note of sarcasm in the voice of her superior. She will lose this battle, she knows. But she may yet win the war. If she can put it so baldly.

“Well, then, in this case I think you should just let this one go, too.”

Throw it back into the sea, where it belongs. Where some things are best left. Those loose ends again. For the sake of one’s own sanity.

Silence. She hopes that it cannot be read as impudence.

“There’s another way to read this, Sheepwool. May I? You could put it this way: Morrison’s research is entirely legal, but it’s proprietary.”

Secrets. Secrets of the sea.

“So, he’s funded by this company – MagusPharm, is it? – And, as far as we can see, he’s brought in Alex Beach on the same ticket, to work on the same things – no, please, Sheepwool, let me go on with this for a minute – goodness knows what mileage there might be in specimens from the Institute, but there you go, that’s their business, surely?

“And we know, or at least can guess, from what the redoubtable Fitch has discovered – she’s doing rather well, by the way, sewed up that Thetford Kebab-Shop Knifing nicely – that Morrison has had a shady past. Shouldn’t be allowed near a lab again, after something nasty crept out from his particular woodshed, and so forth. Did Dr Beach say anything about that?”

“Well, Sir, yes and no. When she first raised the subject, she said quite clearly that she and Morrison were both working on these specimens. But on the record, she backtracked, and said that he had sent material to another MagusPharm laboratory, as far as she knew, and at first without her knowledge. As a blind test, she explained – independent corroboration for her own work.”

That wasn’t to say that Morrison wasn’t working on them himself, but if he were, there was not, as far as she could make out, any evidence of his physical presence at the bench, so to speak. Perhaps he was simply nothing more than he seemed – an overseer, handling the funds, the admin. But she kicks herself, now, that she let that particular loose end hang free. As Methwold does so now, continuing:

“So here he is, at the LPI, and bodies start to fall. And he lies about his whereabouts.”

“Precisely my point, Sir.”

“Well, my guess would be that he’s embarrassed to tell all, in case he might be falsely implicated. So what if he lied about his background to the Institute before they appointed him? We all have skeletons in our pasts. All of us. Some we’d rather not have dragged out at every opportunity.” Sheepwool wonders if she is imagining it, but she has the distinct impression that Methwold’s eyes have become rounder, darker. Deeper.

“All that does is make him a liar, not a murderer. No wonder he went into marketing. Best place for him. He can lie for a living.”

“Yes, Sir.”

“So, as I say…”

And Sheepwool sees it once again, in Methwold’s eyes. She’s sure of it – that in his evasion, in his denial, Methwold is trying to tell her something. Finally, she sees the whole thing in full, the grand panorama.

The car, screeching in from the right.

The loyal wife of decades whose head is turned finally, fatally, seawards.

She looks at him more closely, solicitously, and he responds, with a faint smile.

“Yes, Sir. Perhaps some fish should be thrown back into the sea. Where they belong, Sir.”

“Thank you, Percy. I knew you’d understand.”

The door closes behind her and she backs into it, panting, submerged in a tide of emotion which at first she struggles to rationalize, until, finally, she finds the appropriate category for this sensation, and it is this – relief. Methwold has it all worked out. Some things must be thrown back into the sea. Must be.

Else you’d go mad.

Thrown into the great, encircling, forgiving sea, that raging yet silent keeper of all the secrets of the world. Sometimes the sea has a habit of disgorging its secrets, and sometimes these recycled memories are distended, distorted, fragmentary. But that is the sea’s way of reminding those of us, stranded on the shore like gulls, keening, that although we must find some accommodation with those who are lost, we should not forget these memories entirely, discard them, turn away. For as every mariner knows, one turns one’s back on the sea at one’s peril. But for now, Persephone Sheepwool has the distinct sensation of shackles having been unloosed, of lightness unaccustomed, of floating. She returns to her own office with a spring in her step.

**********

Janice Squearn catches herself in the act of tidying up for the day. She has been doing a lot of this lately – watching herself, that is, like she is her own subject in a time-and-motion study. Perhaps it is because she is close to retirement, and feels less and less attached to the Institute, this place that she both loves and loathes. Perhaps it is because Bland is dead, and this is simply her way of reacting to it. Detachment, she’s read in a magazine, can be a symptom of shock.

A reaction, perhaps, to bereavement.

Or perhaps – now, this is a new thought – she is in fact standing still, but the Institute is finally on the move, slipping, slipping away.

She gathers her bag to leave. She wonders how many days she will do this before it is the very last time.

She usually meets Frankie in the car park and Frankie drives home. But this time she starts, because Frankie is right there, standing outside her office. Frankie looks disturbed, troubled, her hands clenched together.

“Frankie?”

Janice has become adept at reading Frankie’s expressions. This is just as well, because Francesca Honiton, the Institute’s housekeeper, is mute, the result of a cancer in her youth that had robbed her of her tongue, and later, in some weird metastasis, of much of her larynx. She seems to have recovered completely, though she has to be very careful how she eats. Frankie is as fastidious as a crab: she has told Janice that she would do anything – anything – not to have to be fed through a tube again. She has nightmares about Hickman lines, she says – about choking to death, as if she’d been hooked like a fish. Janice knows and cherishes every one of the ridges and scars that run down Frankie’s throat and over her chest. They are like the battle-plans of a desperate war fought now long ago, but not yet forgotten, and which nevertheless remain intensely private. No wonder Frankie prefers these otherwise affected, high-throated Victorian gowns.

Now Frankie unclenches her hands, pinking knuckles whitened by tension, and beckons Janice to follow her. Janice is infected by her excitement.

Frankie sails before her, rushed, animated, through the darkened public gallery and into Dr Bland’s office. As she corrects herself – really, it’s Dr Morrison’s office now, isn’t it? – she wonders how Frankie can just barge in, unannounced. But Dr Morrison must have gone home.

But Frankie is, after all, the housekeeper, and has licence to go anywhere in the Institute she wants, whenever she likes. And it’s not as if she is likely to go telling tales. Not really. Janice wonders why it is only now, after all these years, it had dawned on her just how many secrets must lie hoarded in Frankie’s mind. For Frankie has been at the Institute longer than she has, and must have seen…well, all kinds of things.

Frankie moves behind the big, blond-wood desk and moves her small, lithe fingers over a wall panel, and, suddenly, the panel clicks aside, and she beckons Janice through into a kind of bathroom.

Why?

There’s more, says Frankie’s anxious face, her hands, sharply gesticulating; the tense heave of her hunched shoulders.

She says: follow.

Janice follows – implausibly, through the back of a closet (tailored suits in ranks, towels, a smell of cologne); a dark corridor hung with a tapestry which, after a first glance, Janice thinks she’d rather not look at again; past what looks like a stuffed bear (though bears don’t have paws – hands – like that, do they?); and into a bright space, a laboratory, arrayed with benches and shelves and machinery, humming.

Janice had no idea that Dr Morrison has a private laboratory.

Neither, it seems, did Frankie. And Frankie is the one who knows – who should know – everything. Frankie stands before the arrays of polished chrome, the orderly lines of pipettes, of Petri plates, of equipment, and her expression is a study in anxious incredulity. Without having to say anything, without having to be told, Janice Squearn knows that her next telephone call must be to her favourite former pupil, the bright, blonde girl she had so rudely abandoned, once, long ago.

And then they both look up. All thoughts of contacting Elaine Fitch are driven out by a crash of glass, a thump, a strangled, echoing yell, back towards the public gallery. The brooding darkness of the Museum is broken. She and Frankie turn as one, and retrace their steps.

Through the lab, the corridor, the closet, the bathroom, the office, Janice’s mind replays – she amazes herself – a nursery rhyme. About the King’s Horses and the King’s Men, and how Humpty Dumpty might not, now, be put together again. It is the Institute, then, that is slipping away, not her. It occurs to Janice, then, that she has made a grave mistake about how she has viewed her own life, the guilty, downtrodden refugee. But no, her life has not been a constant tale of flight from one squalid event to another – she sees it now. She has instead been the centre, and the world really has revolved around her. For the first time in her life she feels…she cannot find a word for it, until she thinks of a word that Frankie is fond of. That’s it – she feels ‘empowered’.

**********

Sheepwool is on the scene as cloudy night closes in about the Institute. Fitch arrives late, a scramble of bag and raincoat, breathless from a long but (Sheepwool assumes) speedy drive from Thetford. Her heels click urgently across the parquet towards the floodlit centre of the public gallery, a mess of broken glass and splintered wood and a lake of sharp-smelling fluid, darkening the floor’s herringboned, hardwood staves.

“Ma’am, sorry I’m late, it was…oh heavens, just look at it – at that – it’s…”

At the centre of the lake is a body, eyes round and red-rimmed, mouth open, exuding a single, thin, viscous line of spittle. The SOCOs cluster busily round, and in the pool of light, the general effect is like nothing so much as a painting by Joseph Wright of Derby. See – the moon now peeps in through a seaward window, completing the illusion. Sheepwool smiles, but whether at this nice artistic touch, or Fitch’s characteristic fluster, she is not sure.

“Fitch.”

Sheepwool turns to look at the body. A man, grizzled, leer still on his face, belying the thousand-yard shock in his eyes; hands and face cut around with glass; clad in a brown warehouseman’s coat soaked in the same fluid that drenches the floor; legs and arms and clothing now tangled amid the splinters of an ancient step-ladder which had broken under him as he struggled with what looks like the remains of a demijohn, the kind used for home brewing (according to one of the SOCOs); tottered, fell, and…

“Oh my!” exclaims Fitch, “It’s Bob – Bob Honeypott!” Her hands rush to her face. “And, oh no, it can’t be…”

No longer able to speak, she points, finger shaking, for alongside the remains of the janitor, curled, distorted after more than a century in fluid suspension, is Pickled Lily.

Fitch now turns white, and totters. Perhaps it is nothing more than the headlong rush to the Museum from the other side of the county. Or perhaps it’s nothing more than overwork. Whatever it is, Sheepwool reflexively reaches out to catch her colleague as she begins to fall. The weight is too great for one arm to bear, so Sheepwool wraps both arms around Fitch, who is trembling all over, the sparrow at bay.

“Fitch,” she whispers, so only her colleague can hear, “let’s leave the SOCOs to it. I think I need a drink.”

“You and me both,” replies Fitch, quavering, but regaining her composure almost as swiftly as losing it, disentangling herself from her superior’s cradling hold, straightening herself up, dusting herself down. “The car’s outside. And mine’s a pint.”

“Even on duty?” Sheepwool smiles again, indulgently.

Especially on duty,” Fitch retorts, turning away, heading purposefully for the darkened exit. Sheepwool can still hear a tremulous catch the younger woman’s voice. It is very slight, for Fitch is plainly restraining her emotions by main force. Fitch is, after all – and increasingly – a professional. But it is there.

**********

Gosh! I’ve been busy. Fitch takes a long draw on her lager. Busy. Here, there, and everywhere. Thank God for Jason, bless him. She looks up, then, at Sheepwool, across the table.

“Well, Ma’am, now we know what Bob Honeypott has been up to. Siphoning off the preserving fluid…I ask you.”

“Caught in the act. Pity he was too late for us.”

“Just like Bob, though, isn’t it? Always one step ahead of the game. Of all of us.”

Neither woman laughs.

“Desperate times, Fitch. Rammell thinks that Bob knew we were on to him at last, so he couldn’t be caught filching fresh supplies like he used to, so…”

“He had to have it…used. That’s disgusting.”

“Yes.”

“But what a way to…it was horrible.” Fitch takes another swig. She notices that Sheepwool’s spritzer remains as yet unsampled. “Ma’am – do you think…?”

“Like Bland and Franks? Oh yes, definitely.”

Fitch looks long and quizzically into the gray-blue eyes of her superior officer. Sheepwool seems more self-assured, somehow, more confident, more – well, peaceful, is how she’d put it. Like she’d found something. Or lost something, but found she no longer cared. The Dazed Haddock’s juke box, giving up on the Eagles, now grinds glutinously into another number, the slew of noise resolving into the nasal whine of John Lennon singing ‘Imagine’. About how we’d feel if we rid ourselves of all possessions, of all cares. Free. That’s how we’d feel. That’s how Sheepwool looks. But she still hasn’t touched her drink.

Sheepwool straightens up, as if about to give an announcement at a school prizegiving, and wondering what, precisely, she should say. The impression of calm contentment is removed as smartly as a conjuror’s handkerchief, revealing that the brace of white doves he’d displayed with such extravagance but a moment before had, in fact, disappeared into thin air. “Fitch, I have an idea I’d like to try out on you.”

Fitch is all attention. She has the impression that her superior has been trying to share some secret with her for weeks, but has never quite managed to explain it: as if it were outrageous, or silly, and she’d be afraid of embarrassing herself if she hadn’t said it all exactly right. Fitch has not pressed the point, for she has seen it so often in herself. She knows what to say, but when it comes to it, she can never find the right words. And Sheepwool’s discomfiture always reminded her of Jason’s faltering attempts to ask her out, to propose to her…my goodness, she thinks, she hopes Sheepwool hasn’t taken her silly grin of recollection as patronizing. So she composes herself, now, as Sheepwool continues, once again, on this uncertain voyage into hypothesis.

“We can agree, I think, that Bob Honeypott died, substantially, of the same thing that disposed of Dr Bland and Dr Franks, can we?”

“The same ‘natural causes’? Well, I expect we’ll need Jim – Dr Levy – to rule on that, and the coroner, but…well, sure, Bob seemed to have the same symptoms.”

“Fine. Well, while you’ve been away, I’ve had a couple of long chats with Alex Beach.” Sheepwool shifts nervously in her seat. “I’ve been meaning to tell you this – share some ideas – but the opportunity never seemed to arise, and, well…”

“Go on, Ma’am. Please.” Fitch is now straight and serious, as if demanding – yearning for – an answer. So Sheepwool tells Fitch of Alex Beach’s theory that both Bland and Franks were killed after ingesting specimens of these tiny sea creatures called carnostomids, and her other theory – more a conjecture, really, that in the wild, carnostomids grow up to become...

“Mermaids? Ma’am – you can’t be serious, can you? Surely…”

“Yes, Fitch. I think I am.”

“But…”

“Yes, Fitch – and please don’t let this go any further, just now. I thought it was just a flight of fancy until now. Perhaps it still is. But, you know, there wasn’t just Bob lying on the floor just now, was there? There was…”

“Pickled Lily.” Fitch looks shocked. Electrified.

“Yes, Fitch, Pickled Lily. Ever since I first saw her, I’ve been intrigued by the label. You know, on the display case. It says that despite a lot of overblown mariner’s tales about Pickled Lily’s provenance as a mermaid, it – she – is probably the finest example of the taxidermic art of Sir Frideric Lowdley-Purring.”

“And?”

“Well, if that’s true, why did Sir Frideric never brag about it? Like he bragged about everything else?”

“And, if so – especially so – why did he forbid any examination of Pickled Lily to make sure, even after his death?”

Sheepwool sits back. She picks up her wine glass and takes her first sip. “Anyway, whatever Pickled Lily is, or was, it all fits,” she says, putting the glass down once more. “Bob caught carnostomids from the preserving fluid. And that’s that. And whatever else I might think, it exonerates Morrison. He’s above suspicion.” Somehow, thinks Fitch, Sheepwool’s expression suggests that she does not really believe this, but has, in some way, compartmentalized it.

For she knows, as well as Sheepwool, that Morrison has done some terrible things in the past. It was she, after all – Fitch – who’d done the legwork, dragging out those old reports on Morrison’s previous. That he should never be let loose in a scientific laboratory again. Not ever.

Problem was, all the evidence against him was given under the terms of anonymity. The perpetual penumbra of peer review. Result – Morrison gets away scot-free. Again.

The two women are lost, briefly, confined to their own thoughts. At this point they are joined by another: the sound of a manly exhalation tells them that Dr Garrison Williams has joined them at their table.

“Mind if I joined you, ladies? Freshen up your drinks?”

Sheepwool looks up, as if jolted from reverie.

Fitch says, “Dr Williams, no – please do. Mine’s a Grolsch, and the Inspector…?” Sheepwool puts her hand up as if to say that she can nurse this warming spritzer a little while longer. Williams is back at the table in less than two minutes, bottles in hand.

“I heard you talking about Bob. Is he…?”

Fitch explains the situation. About how Bob fell from a ladder at the Institute and died. She spares him the details of the precise location. And what he was doing at the time. But Williams’ face is a study in shock – he turns a dreadful, ashy white.

“Dr Williams?” Fitch puts a calming hand on his arm.

“Goddamn. That’s awful. He was a good friend to me. A good friend. When many others weren’t. His poor mother…”

Sheepwool remembers the formidable figure at Bland’s funeral. The detectives offer conventional condolences. But after taking a long swig of his beer, Williams appears to pull himself together, and, drawing closer to the women, offers what at first seems a very strange confession.

“Ladies – officers – I hope you don’t mind, but there’s been something I’ve been meaning to tell you. Something I should have said before, really, after Bland…died…but now Franks, and now poor Bob, well…”

“Please go on, Dr Williams.” This from Sheepwool. Fitch is aware that Sheepwool’s complete, patient stillness contrasts with what she thinks is a slight tremor in Dr Williams. When she touched his arm, she felt it jolt and shake.

“Sure. Yes. Right. It’s all about Morrison. That’s Dr Morrison, at the Institute, you know? How a panel of anonymous scientists recommended that he never be allowed to work in a lab again.”

Fitch is astonished. “Dr Williams – how – you – how did you know?”

“Easy, Sergeant. I was one of those anonymous scientists.”