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Just on the edge of sight

By the Sea: Part III, Chapter 5

Henry Gee 28 October 2007

www.lablit.com/article/316

She is a chimera of truth and illusion

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 Five

“We’ll need an autopsy, Dr Morrison.”

“On Honeypott? That’s hardly up to me, Inspector, is it?” Morrison looks up at her from behind the barricade of his desk. Funny, he thought La Dipshit had gone, perhaps as spectrally as she’d appeared, but no, there she still is, hanging over him like a dyspeptic vulture. He sits back, meets her gaze. He had not invited her to sit, imagining that this would earn him strategic points, but now wonders if this has been an error on his part – for she sees in the Inspector’s eyes none of the slightly barmy distraction he’d gotten used to.

False sense of security, old boy. This time her eyes are pitiless points, like she knows precisely where to strike, and how hard.

Really, Morrison thinks to himself, he should watch his step. Engage brain before opening mouth. But, much against his better judgment, he feels himself – too often these days – seized with the desperation of someone who knows that they are reaching the end of the road. Alex may be pleasantly dickable (though he preferred it, somehow, when she had been oiled with the smell of fear – terrific turn-on, that). But he’s beginning to think that sex is all she is good for: she is getting absolutely nowhere with the carnostomids, not even with the expensive equipment and that technician he’s hired for her. No, she just keeps gibbering on about DNA, like genomics ever solved anything, rather than cutting to the chase and using that hardware to isolate the immunogenic activity that he’d found, all on his own.

Stupid, stupid girl. Well, he admits to himself, ruefully, what did he expect from some bit of fluff he picked up in a hotel bar, hmm? Really, old man, you have to stop thinking with your tackle.

But he is forced to admit that he’s got nowhere, either. At least he might get somewhere, more than Alex has, with some help, but he could hardly hire a technician for his own lab, now, could he? People would, after all, notice. But Alex has all the stuff, so he should at least give that dozy tart a thorough talking-to. Get her to sharpen up her act. If there’s any time still left. She’s been funny, though, lately, come to think of it. Keeps going off the boil, rushing off to give it the whole pavement-pizza performance.

Speaking to God on the Great White Telephone.

So the sex is going down the tubes, along with the research. Oh, well, screw her. Or not, as the case may be. There are other fish in the sea. Yes, what he needs is more people. More time. More resources. He has none of these things. He is cornered. So – what the hell. Might as well rush headlong for the old rat-meets-sinking-ship nexus with as much style as he can muster.

Go for it.

“Mr Honeypott’s autopsy is all arranged, Dr Morrison,” Sheepwool says. What? The scarecrow is still here? “I strongly suspect that he will be shown to have died from the same – whatever it was – that killed Dr Bland, and Dr Franks.”

“ ‘The same whatever-it-was’, Inspector? And what do you think that whatever-it-was might have been, hmm?” He shoots, he scores. His mimicry – perhaps stronger than he really means it – has the Inspector back on her heels.

“I think you know that better than I do, Dr Morrison.”

Oh fuck. Fuck-fuck-fuck-fuckity-fuck.

Who has been talking? Has he – perhaps – been indiscreet where he shouldn’t? “In any case, you misunderstand me,” she said. “I request – no, I require – an autopsy on Pickled Lily.”

Morrison tries to smile, to brush it off. Something has gone tits up, somewhere. He hurls his mind through all its internal cubbyholes, looks under every rock. Not that he gives a damn for Pickled Lily. Probably best to let La Sheepdip have the corpse, if she wants it. But he should at least attempt one last hurrah. He is, after all, even if in name only, The Director. The Grand Fromage. The Big Kahuna. As if.

“Well, I’m so sorry, Inspector, but that’s entirely out of the question. Conditions of our Blessed Founder’s will. Holy Writ. The Trustees would forbid it. Absolutely. And as much as I think they’re a bunch of tossers, Inspector, I’d be right beside them on this one. Shoulder to shoulder. No, Inspector. No. Can. Do.”

“Look, Dr Morrison, three people have died at your Institute. On your watch.”

“And a fat lot of progress your lot has made with any of them, Inspector. ‘Natural Causes’? That stands for ‘No Fucking Idea’, in my book.”

“In which case, Dr Morrison, I think you should probably give us a little more help. With our inquiries. Don’t you?”

“Do I? Do I? Look, Inspector, if you want to write to the Trustees directly, be my guest. Go right ahead. But you won’t get permission to slice up Pickled Lily before Hell freezes over. No way.”

A transformation comes over the vertically over-extended form of La Sheepshit. She seems even taller, somehow, like her head is brushing the ceiling – and darker, like a thunderhead. She really is very impressive.

“Fine, Dr Morrison. If that’s the way you want it. But when I ask the Trustees, which I’ll do ever so nicely, I might mention a few other things. Such as your misplaced…er…location on the night of Bland’s death.”

“Like I fucking care. I have bigger fish to fry, Inspector. Much bigger.” He throws up his hands, exposing two lengths of Jieves and Hawkes and a gold Rolex. That’ll show her!

“And the fact that you misled the Trustees about your appointment here. About those various holes in your curriculum vitae.”

“Holes, Inspector? Holes? What holes are those? As if it’s any of your business. But no, I forgot, how silly of me. You’re a Police Officer.” He spits out the capitals. “I should really be on my best behaviour. Holes, indeed.”

“I take it, then, Dr Morrison, that we have your permission – and, indeed, your full and willing cooperation? Aren’t you, as a former scientist, Dr Morrison, at all curious about why the Founder made that provision? I assure you we’ll treat her with all the respect she deserves. We’ll sew her up again, so you’d never notice.”

Morrison really should be more on his guard, but Christ, Sheepshit gets very sexy when she’s angry, as if all her saggy bits tighten and perk up. Taut, ready for action. Maybe he should ditch Alex and shag her, instead. Morrison, old chap, this time you have really, really lost it. Time for a diplomatic retreat, he thinks – to buy some time later on. This isn’t the first sinking ship he’s been on, he reassures himself. And he’s a more experienced rat than most.

Exit strategy.

Morrison emerges from behind his desk, picks up a raincoat and thrusts himself past Sheepwool, heading for the door. “Do what you like, Inspector. Do what you fucking well like.”

He leaves rather more quickly than he’d have wished. Not quite the grace-under-pressure he’d hoped for. But he wouldn’t want the Detective Inspector to have clocked his stonking great hard-on, now, would he? That would never do.

**********

Jim Levy looks up, caged within his pool of light. “It’s like nothing I’ve ever seen before, Inspector,” he says through his green theater mask.

Sheepwool, with Fitch, in the shadows, looking on: suited and booted, as they all are.

“And believe me, Inspector, I’ve seen a lot of things.”

Alex is beyond Levy, at the tail end of Pickled Lily. Alex ought to be excited about this, Sheepwool thinks, but instead she looks puffy, subdued. The customary chatter has been replaced by brooding silence. And there is something else, too. The few glances she essays at Sheepwool, eyes above the mask, are full of what looks like resentment. Or is it fear?

Levy turns to Alex. Sheepwool can’t hear what Levy says, but Alex nods, then Levy turns to the policewomen. “Look,” he says, “I’ve done all I can here. I think I can let Dr Beach have a few samples to…er…take home with her.”

“A party bag?” says Fitch. Sheepwool wonders at the edge in her subordinate’s voice. None of the usual giggling. But Fitch is looking at Alex with merciless hardness.

“Er…if you like, Detective Sergeant,” says Levy. “Probably against the rules. But I won’t say anything if you won’t. Alex has all the equipment we’d need to tie things up, right there, at the Institute. And the expertise, too. We’d get further, quicker, that way, than if we had to…”

“That’s perfectly fine, Dr Levy,” Sheepwool says.

“Right then. I’ll just sew her up – Pickled Lily, that is. Dr Beach and I can clear up, get changed, and then we can do some hard talking.” Levy suggests a pub in the centre of Norwich.

It is a nameless city-centre pub, just off Colegate. Run-down and almost deserted, its clientele having been sucked out by newer, flashier establishments round about. A lone fruit machine is what passes for entertainment, its red lights winking as uncaringly as those of a middle-aged prostitute at the end of a disappointing night’s trade.

“At least it’s quiet,” says Levy, “And the beer’s good.”

Merry Mermaid. She might have guessed.

The four of them are clustered round a table at the far end, screened off from the rest of the bar. Levy leans forward, conspiratorially.

“It’s all very odd. She looks human down as far as the waist. Allowing for…er…decay, I’d say she was a woman. A young woman, too, probably no more than sixteen or seventeen – eighteen at most. The teeth are all there, all erupted, but relatively unworn, as it were. None of the usual signs of age. And below the waist, well…” He shrugs.

Alex, who has not said a word all evening, moves as if to speak, then appears to change her mind. She waves Levy to continue.

“Well, as I was saying, below the waist, well, that’s another story. The skin of the torso seems to intergrade with the scales on the tail really well. It’s beautiful. If it’s a fake, it’s a bloody good one. Whoever did that was a real expert. But anno domini, I’m afraid, has bollixed things up, too.

“And inside – well, that’s another story, too. Usually, with a taxidermic specimen, you’d expect all the viscera – the innards, if you like – to have been removed. Not so with Our Lil. Whoever did this did something of a knife-and-fork job. There are bits and pieces of tissue all over the shop. Intercostal muscles still between the ribs, and so forth. Just about everything in the arms, shoulders and face. Apart from the eyes, of course. They are fakes.”

Sheepwool suppresses a shudder.

“All the tissue’s tanned and hardened with age – but, you know, this could explain why Pickled Lily was mounted in preservative – rather than dry, like a stuffed hunting trophy. So she wouldn’t…er…go off.”

Goodness, thinks Sheepwool. I hadn’t thought of that.

“And that explains another thing, too.” Levy pauses to sup his pint, as theatrically as ever.

“Which is?” asks Sheepwool, playing up to Levy’s mood.

“Well, much of the insides, especially in the tail end, have been replaced with a light framework of wood and wirework, as you’d expect. But the bones are there…”

“Bones?” This from Fitch.

“Yes. Not usual in stuffed specimens. Usually the bones are taken out and mounted separately. Not so Pickled Lily. The top half has all the usual bones – human ones – I think I mentioned the ribs. But the vertebrae – all suspended on a wire that replaces the spinal canal – kind of grade into the tail and fade out. There’s no sign of a pelvis or lower limbs.”

“Almost like a whale,” says Alex, largely to herself.

“The vertebrae look human, too – not at all like those of a fish – right down to the radials at the end of the tail itself. The fin. I’d like to say that there’s a join at waist level, but if so, it’s hard to see. Like I said, impressive.”

“I’m puzzled, Dr Levy,” says Sheepwool, her inquiry leading, gentle.

“Aren’t we all, Inspector? Aren’t we all?”

“Yes. For me, it all comes back to the museum label, not the specimen itself. From the outside, you say that Pickled Lily was created by a real expert.”

“Just so. A professional job. Whoever did this knew precisely what they were doing.”

“But from the inside, it looks like it was done rather badly. Inexpertly.”

“That’s it, Inspector. As if two people did it – a pro and a novice. An apprentice, maybe. Or if it were done by just one person, an expert, but in a hurry.”

“So, as you said, Dr Levy, it’s a puzzle. But I still come back to the label. If this were a taxidermic fake – like the other ones we knew Sir Frideric created – why did he contrive to hide it? To the extent that he forbade anyone from looking at it? From doing what we – well, what we did just now?”

“Perhaps, Inspector, he was afraid someone would see the botched inside job. Professional pride, and so on.”

Sheepwool is silent for a spell. “But some of the insides do seem very well done. The bones, and so on.”

“That’s true, Inspector…”

“But, on the other hand, if it were a real mermaid…” This from Fitch.

“Why would he hide that, either?” asks Levy. “ ‘Secrets of the Sea’, and all that? The mission of the Institute?”

“Quite,” says Sheepwool, “you’d think he’d want to advertise that. It would be a major discovery.”

“That’s true,” says Fitch, who now falls silent.

Alex stirs, once again, abortively.

“So we’re back to square one,” says Sheepwool. “If it’s a real mermaid, the discovery of Sir Frideric’s career – or anyone’s career – why did he hide it? But if it were a fake, it looks very convincing from the outside – as you say, Dr Levy, an expert job – so why would he hide that, too? Prevent anyone from taking a closer look?” Her question is left hanging in the air, unanswered. Levy breaks the spell, jarringly.

“Well, I’m as puzzled as everyone else, but whoever heard of real mermaids? Now, if I were Sir Frideric, and I’d discovered a real mermaid, I’d have told everyone all about it. So if Pickled Lily isn’t an expert fake, the next round is on me.”

“It is anyway,” says Sheepwool.

“Oh – is it? Same again, I take it?” Sheepwool and Fitch nod. Alex remains a tableau, inert, disconnected. Levy gets up and shambles towards the bar. Not with any reluctance, however, because behind the bar stands the only redeeming feature of this hostelry – apart from the beer itself – a plump, blonde Australian with relentlessly bubbly Antipodean cheer and an enticingly low-cut top. Her flirtatious banter with Levy fades into the background as Alex, then, starts to speak. It is at first no more than a murmur.

“Alex – are you all right – you seem, well…not quite yourself.”

“Me? No, Inspector, thank you, I’m fine. Just fine. It’s just…” she places a hand over her belly, and turns to Fitch.

“Something that never occurred to me until we were there, at the hospital, looking at Pickled Lily. The Sea Bathers.”

“Sea Bathers?” says Fitch.

“Yes. Funny thing. It’s kind of a custom, you know. In Deringland.”

Fitch lights up. “Oh yes, so it is…”

“That every year, on the twenty-first of December, people go for a swim. They’re called the Solstice Sea Bathers. Off the beach, you know, below the pier,” says Alex. Fitch cannot help but contribute: “That’s right: the newspapers cover it, lots of people come. Kind of a funfair, really. Prizes for the Bather who stays in the sea the longest, goes out the farthest, you know.”

Alex grins, then, and starts to laugh. It is a strange sound, deeper and more halting than expected: “Hot buttered rum for the swimmers!”

“Alex – why now?” asks Sheepwool, “What is the…?”

Alex turns to face Sheepwool directly. Her eyes are huge, yearning. “Because Evanston Bland and Heather Franks were both in the sea that day. They were both Solstice Sea Bathers. They were there, standing in the sea – I think they were having an argument – but then they both got swept off their feet by a huge wave that came out of nowhere. But it’s all consistent, you know. With the Spaniel accounts of why the sailors died. The incubation period. A few days to a few weeks. No more.”

Fitch chimes in: “Are you saying that Bland and Franks were infected by…What are these things? Carnostomids? From the sea?”

“Yes, I think I am. From the sea. At least, they could have been. It doesn’t explain Bob Honeypott of course. He wasn’t there. He got them from Pickled Lily. I’m almost sure of it.”

“Alex,” says Sheepwool, as gently but as firmly as she can manage, “how do you know this?”

“Because I was there, Inspector. I was in the sea, too. It was very warm, you know. Warmer than you’d think. And you know what? All the swimmers were men, except me. And Heather Franks of course – but – oh yes! Well, all except me, then.” Alex’s eyes are filled with an alien kind of blue. Sheepwool has seen that blueness before – in her dreams. And in wakefulness, just on the edge of sight. Only now, Sheepwool sees it clearly, for the first time.

And what she sees makes her sit up with a start.

Sheepwool has often thought that a love of surrealist art, while not absolutely necessary for the training of any detective, is, at least, helpful. It’s all to do with the unnerving effect created by the placing together of unlikely objects, or the appearance of objects where you least expect them. Cups and saucers made from fur. Telephones with lobsters for handsets. Clouds in the shape of tubas. Or chairs.

Or, come to think of it, female torsos.

Threatening weather.

Combinations which on the face of it spell paradox, but when thought about, signal uses we had not, at first, considered, or even thought possible – or imaginable. Pickled Lily is just that. A paradox.

Or a juxtaposition.

If she is ambiguous, both a real mermaid and a fake, and yet neither one, or perhaps both at once, then that could be because that is precisely what she is. A chimera of truth and illusion.

On a sudden, she knows why the Institute is the way it is. No matter how full Sir Frideric stuffed it with his specimens; no matter how egregiously he and his successors added to its already overwrought frame, something nasty, something truly hideous, has managed to leak out through its pores.

So, she thinks, that’s why Sir Frideric forbade further investigation of his prize specimen. It is Pickled Lily herself, both the victim – and the creation – of Sir Frideric Lowdley-Purring’s most terrible crime. A crime which, she thinks, she has now solved.

Jim Levy, exuding bonhomie, returns with a tray of drinks. Reflexively, with the unthinking, meandering artlessness of the tentacles oaf a sea anemone, Alex Beach caresses her abdomen.

**********

It is close to midnight, and Sir Frideric Lowdley-Purring is about to start work. He feels that this will be his greatest triumph – but one which, regretfully, must remain forever hidden.

Upon my word, he thinks, trimming wicks and lighting a few small lamps around the bench at the very center of the room, casting the rest of the great space into coaly shadow, it took no great art to distract Felicity, not that she was not distracted already – the Lady is more than three parts demented! – and to convince her that their daughter had in fact drowned on one of her mad moonlit wanderings – her body lost, irrecoverably.

It had then been a trivial affair to have her body – which Sir Frideric had, in reality, thrown into the sea, although with great care – collected by those two singularly ill-favored natives of Deringland, crab-fishers both but hardly more than common footpads who, despite their regular employ, had been very well paid to keep a secret of their complicity – very well paid. But Sir Frideric knows other ways of keeping men quiet, now, and he has impressed this on his hired hands. Oh, yes, the Honeypott brothers had little in the way of wit, but just enough to know when to hold their tongues, lest Sir Frideric hold them, as might be said, on their behalf.

He could easily have disposed of Rebecca’s body. Quite easily! Or pushed it into the sea, all by himself, alive or dead, genuinely to have seen the last of it. Or contrived some fatal conjunction which would have encompassed both Rebecca and that love-lorn fool Willoughby: to be sure, that man, once so full of promise, is fast becoming a liability – a liability!

But the opportunity was just too fine to pass up.

All that new, young, white incorrupt flesh.

Almost incorrupt, at any rate, but he could see about such defects as he himself had lately introduced. Of course he could! And yet, and yet: by all that’s Holy, he knew he should never have gone down this perilous path. But Sir Frideric loves a challenge, and sees himself as secure from all risk. And there is that siren call, temptation. Ah, temptation! He can resist anything – anything – but that. He laughs, rolls up his sleeves, collects his butcher’s apron from a hook, his saws and cleavers and needles and so forth from a bucket next to his bench, and sets to work.

And, moreover, he adds to himself, by way of justification, he has to make something of that specimen sent by Casares. A real mermaid, indeed! The tail looks well enough, but the torso is all in disarray. He doubts whether even an artist of the flesh as skilled as he undoubtedly is (Sir Frideric, despite his many faults, is a fair judge of his own accomplishment) could make anything of that. And even if he did, who would then believe him? A real mermaid? One that has required quite so much restoration?

So, it is the tail, only, which is worth saving. All that it needs is the torso, the head, the arms, to make it into a mermaid that would be a fitting testament to his genius – even if only for his own, private contemplation.

He has a choice of several cadavers, but in truth, there can only be one. Only this – this pure, white young girl, the flawless skin, the soft curves that only a Greek sculptor might have rendered, and even then only in the rarest marble, the face of such perfect serenity, will provide material of sufficient worth to participate in this, his most signal endeavour.

He makes short work of cleaving the body in half through the lower abdomen, making sure to collect in a broad, stone basin as much of the viscera as he can. Ah, he wonders, as he always does, at the fascination of it! Is it, perhaps, the shining pinkness of it; the almost feminine, folded intricacy of the internal organs, intimately joined and yet separated by the delicacy of their mesenteries? Or, perhaps, the slight, quiet sounds they make as they tumble forth, the gentle suck and slap and slide, as waves on a far shore? He feels himself stirring – but alas! There is insufficient time, tonight, to indulge oneself in such glamour, such gorgeous contemplation. At any rate, from this spill of guts – by Jove, the dogs will have some rare offal in the morning!

Ah, the morning. He knows he will have to complete the task by then, for Willoughby is due to assist in some other, more mundane tasks. And Willoughby, above all, must not be a party to this exercise.

Now he penetrates the chest from below, through the diaphragm – so as not to disturb the ribcage – and pulls out the heart and lights. These, too, he slops into the basin. He flenses out the thoracic cavity as well as he can, in the hooded eyes of the sooty lamplight, but he will not have the time he’d usually devote this necessary task. No, Sir, he does not. So he does as well as he is able: for there are the bones to see to, which he must leave in, for want of a suitable armature – he has no time to prepare anything but the most rudimentary framework. By good fortune, he has a few, ready prepared for the mounting of large fishes and creatures of that sort.

And the sewing, and the careful arts required to join fish to flesh. These will require the greatest devotion of all, the most refined delicacy. Upon my word, he declares, the most refined of all!