By The Sea: Part III, Chapter 8
18 November 2007
All the world is a stage, and even scientists are merely players
Editor's note: This chapter completes By The Sea, a tale of science, murder, sex and Victorian secrets blended into a dark, gothic thriller. You can use the navigation tools in the upper right-hand part of the screen to read the entire novel.
Advisory: this chapter contains explicit sexual references
“You were right all the time, Sheepwool.” Methwold’s eyes seem even larger than usual, refracted through the thick lenses in a face that looks pinched and tired rather than calmly authoritative. “Can you sum up for us, then, Fitch?”
“Yes, Sir. Dr Williams’ tip-off led us to a Board of Inquiry at Dr Morrison’s old University, when he was a scientist there – this goes back fifteen years, and Morrison was working under an alias.”
“Do scientists do that sort of thing?” asks Methwold. Sheepwool smiles – all the world, it seems, is a stage, and even scientists are merely players.
“Apparently so, Sir,” continues Fitch, “and Morrison was suspected of gross misconduct. Morrison – or John Wayne as he then was…” – Methwold suppresses a snort – “was implicated in several deaths. Junior colleagues, all female, all romantically involved with him at some time or another, which is why…”
“…which is why Alex Beach is in terrible danger, Sir.” This from Sheepwool, an urgency in her voice. “And Morrison seems to have disappeared, with Alex in tow.”
“Hard to say, Sir.” Sheepwool reflects on her view – a view she’s held throughout the whole Institute business – that Morrison and Beach are in it together. And so, perhaps, they are. But togetherness is rarely symmetrical, and there are as many species of togetherness as there are people – people, squared. And some people need to be protected from themselves. Especially if they’re out in filthy weather like this. ‘Threatening Weather’, as Magritte had it, but that’s a translation, and Sheepwool now idly wonders about its accuracy, given the ambiguity of the word ‘threatening’. For who (whom?) is being threatened, here? The weather, or those who endure it? If Alex Beach is a hostage, how far is she complicit? Then, Sheepwool reflects, there may be a third force at work here. A force from the Sea. Ah, yes. Alex Beach may be a hostage – but is Morrison really the abductor?
“But just in case, Sir – given the evidence,” says Fitch, “now that we know – from what Janice Squearn said – that Morrison had a secret lab, in direct contravention, Sir, of the…”
“Oh, all right then,” Methwold concedes. “Given the evidence. Do the usual ports-and-airports thing, would you, Fitch? Warrants? I’ll call the Chief Constable. And we’ll need a press conference. Morrison needs to be found.” Methwold starts to rise from his desk, coughs pointedly to indicate that the interview is now at an end.
The phone rings – Methwold swipes up the receiver in a single, easy movement.
The conversation is over in less than twenty seconds. Receiver down, he looks at the two detectives, now standing, poised like statues, purses and coats in hand.
“That was the coastguard,” says Methwold. His face is drained of all colour. “It’s the Institute. It’s falling into the Sea.”
Morrison had cleaned her up in the hotel as well as he could, but she is still filthy and dishevelled, and makes a sad contrast with the others seated at the table. They are all men in suits. The table is of a fine, dark wood, but the room, which is slightly too small for it, is furnished in the dull beiges and greens of cheap rented offices, a décor almost offensive in its sincere effort to be unobtrusive. Behind the vertical slats of the porridge-coloured window-blinds she can see the asphalt surface of a car park, slick and dark in the all-enfolding gloom. How sad. This really isn’t where she wants to be, for her mind is full of blue.
There is no ‘blue’ here. Where is the blue? She wants it. She wants it, badly.
She looks at the men. They are all faceless. Literally, without faces. As hard as she tries – squinting with the effort – there is nothing to be seen beneath hairline and collar of any of them. Except teeth. Always, there are teeth.
“The potential of your research into carnostomids is great, Dr Morrison,” one of the faceless men explains. “But you have not met your projected targets. The forecast was quite specific.”
“Yes, of course. But as you see, the project took an unexpected new turn.” This from Morrison, seated to her left. She can smell his sweat now, rank and pungent, not entirely masked by the deception of his cologne. He turns to Alex, then, as if his faceless face is in a spotlight. The other faceless men turn towards her, in choreographed unison. Morrison continues, directing his words to Alex not as a person, but as if she were a business presentation. Or an exhibit. As if she’s not really meant to be there. And so, therefore, she is not: she hears Morrison’s words as no more than a collection of syllables hung on the gristle of presentational syntax. They seem to be taking a very long time. Another faceless man intervenes.
“This is all very well, Dr Morrison. It also fits your conjectures.”
“Thank you.” But Morrison’s smugness is premature.
“They are, however, only conjectures,” says another faceless face.
“Not even hypotheses,” adds a third, “Let alone anything we might develop into anything we might possibly take to market in any reasonably projectable time-frame.”
“Targets, Morrison, targets,” says the second faceless face. “Science costs money. Blue-skies research is fine, but not on our ticket.”
“But the effects of carnostomids – TubeWave – on pregnancy…the differential effects on males and females…think what it could…” Alex detects a pleading note in Morrison’s voice.
“Conjecture, as we said.” This from the first faceless face. Or is it the third? It’s so hard to tell. And what is that about pregnancy? I think they must be referring to me, she thinks to herself, idly, as if she were one of Les Tricoteuses watching the guillotine’s scrape, drop and crack, scrape, drop and crack – and not the victim, at center stage.
This a faceless face at the far end of the table. It must be a senior example, for the room falls silent, all except for the lusty hum of the aircon, the only other sound in a room which might be anywhere. Cambridge? London? Or some place where anonymity is even more easily achieved – Slough, perhaps, or Milton Keynes. She’d lost track, somewhere on the way down, when the speeding scenery was enveloped in black cloud, the blueness she desired somewhere in the distance, receding.
“Morrison, you have spent a great deal of our money for no discernible benefit. And now we see that your researcher has turned into your experimental subject.”
“Don’t interrupt, Morrison. Remember, your record is known to us. We are well aware of your tendencies. We are not prepared to underwrite them any more than we have to. There is only one way to test your conjectures, and that’s by investigation. We’re prepared to go that far, at least.”
“Thank you, Sir.”
“Don’t mention it. Bring the subject here tomorrow for operative procedures.”
“Operative…procedures…? Yes, Sir, of course.”
“If you fail us, Morrison – if you don’t show up – details of your past proclivities will find their way to the authorities. Our shareholders would demand nothing less.”
There is general laughter around the table. Morrison’s smell grows more insistently acrid: Alex detects a note of – what is it – fear? She has never smelled that in Morrison before. She rather likes it, she thinks. It’s a turn-on. She’d like to smell it some more. She feels suddenly conscious of the existence of her own physical body in a way that she hasn’t felt for a very long time.
“But that was all cleared up, a long time ago.” Morrison is on the defensive.
“Oh really? You really think so, do you? You were given a second chance, then. But you just couldn’t keep away. We funded you, Morrison, when no-one else would. But there are many other – how you say? – fish in the sea. Well, there are no third chances. No sense throwing good money after bad. You fail us now, Morrison, and we’ll bury you in shit and claim we never saw you before in our lives.”
Morrison is in the tiny bathroom of the motel, trying to loosen his tie. His collar is sticky with sweat, darkening and crumpling the silk of tie and shirt alike, degrading the neatness of his neckwear into an unholy mess like cold, wet spaghetti. He snags a nail on the recalcitrant knot. Oh, fuck it. And fuck them. Oh, I wish, he thinks. There’s nothing for it now but to turn up tomorrow with Alex for the great carve-up. He doesn’t know what they think they’ll find inside except a fetus.
Well, they can analyze that, I suppose.
Oh, come on, Morrison, don’t be such a dickhead. You know their suspicions. If carnostomids are the source of TubeWave, as they all seem to think, then they need to know the effects on the unborn. Why? Because, the Board has told him, the social experiment of TubeWave on the streets has backfired. Pregnant women on Surf-D have had stillbirths, teratologies. Phocomelia. And scales. And fins. The shareholders are skittish: MagusPharm will have to withdraw TubeWave…and cover its tracks. Find out what’s going on, at least – knowledge is power. Which is why he’ll have to bring Alex in tomorrow. Alex – pregnant Alex – is the only reason MagusPharm is still supporting him at all. Oh, yes – they made that abundantly clear. Alex has bought him a little more time. A day or two, at least.
But what then?
Oh, he’s sure he’ll think of something. He always has.
The kick hits him in the small of the back – pain erupts. Before he has had time to react, his tie is grabbed and yanked violently backwards. He sees spots before his eyes. Bending down, forwards, he attempts to turn and head-butt the assailant in the stomach. Bad move. A knee comes up and smashes into his chin. He feels teeth shatter and hot blood spurt from his tongue. Then something hard crashes into his skull, shattering. Ah, must be that bottle of champagne. Or Cava, anyway. Nice touch, really, for a motel, muses the part of his mind curiously detached from the current doo-doo in which he finds himself. What a waste of perfectly good alcohol.
Resigned, he crumples backwards onto the hard, tiled bathroom floor, smacking the back of his head on the lip of the shower cubicle as he descends, and slumps into a puddle of blood and sparkling wine, still fizzing. After a second – or an hour – his vision clears. Oh, my fucking head. He looks up, through phosphorescent stabs of pain, and sees her towering above him.
She’s magnificent. Especially from this angle. She’d finally taken off her muddied jeans and underwear, and, well, those legs…and, Christ, he can see all the way up. His eyes are drawn further upwards, though, over the swell of her abdomen, and what he sees then is not so nice. Oh yes, of course, she’s aroused, all right. Taut and hot. But the general picture is red. Not blood. No, not really. But her whole skin is suffused with red, pulsing, crimson with excitement.
But her hands are the reddest, both clenched, knuckles starting into bone-white knots round the neck of the broken champagne bottle which she is brandishing like a club. The edges are sharp and menacing. Her eyes are red, too – huge, wild and scarlet, framed by hair that’s standing out in all directions, like she’s plugged herself into the mains. Oh, God, this is just too fucking Boadicea to take in. And so, so sexy. About time too, after all that passive humping when, time after time, she’s just lain there like a corpse, legs akimbo, while he made all the moves.
He hardens in an instant.
“Alex,” he manages to say through the swollen wreck of his mouth. “Nice to see you, too. Pull me up, and let’s finish this in bed, shall we?”
Her expression does not soften. She just stands there like some Gothic Statue of Liberty as he kneels, painfully, slithering around on floor wet with wine and blood, grinding his knees and palms in the fragments of broken glass. No sooner than he’s righted himself on the washbasin, unfolding himself ever so gently to dodge the knives of pain in his head, his back, his knees, his hands, his neck – than she hits him again with the broken bottle. Again, again, and again, until he staggers, his jacket and trousers blood-soaked rags, and falls backwards onto the bed.
She jumps on him then. He is powerless to resist. She mounts him, shoving his hardness inside her and pounding and grinding on top of him, and if he makes any sign of moving, she gouges the bottle’s edges into his neck, his chest, his face. His left eye goes dark in a spasm of agony. He comes, and so does she, and as she does so she howls like a vixen at bay, arches over him, all distended belly and breasts and teeth and arms waving that bottle like a banner, and spits in his face.
“Take me back to the sea, you bastard,” she growls: “take me home. Do it now.”
“But…we...tomorrow…Alex…” He can hardly get the words out. It’s not just that his mouth is a battlefield – it’s that fantastic, endorphin rush of sex. He can’t remember feeling so high, ever. If there was ever a time to lie back with a cigarette, this is it. He goes numb, smooth planes of pleasure taking the edge off his wounds; relaxes, his eyes heavy-lidded. Alex, however, has other plans.
“I said now,” she shrieks, plunging the dagger-like shards so deeply into the side of his face that he feels the blades pass right through to the other side.
She has been careful not to damage so much of Morrison that he cannot drive. The blueness in her mind has guided her hand well. The rainy, night-time road is a white-lined, white-lit tunnel before them, leading outwards into the blue. She does not recognize the road – she does not care, so long as she can keep her target in view. She keeps her right hand hard round the bottle, in case Morrison tries to deviate from the ordained path. Her path into wakefulness. Her left hand pulls the motel bathrobe close around her like a scallop around Venus, rising.
Gradually, the blue ahead is softened by a lightness to the right, as the sun rises and ascends into a low ceiling of cloud.
“Oh, no – that’s all we need,” mumbles Morrison, looking into the rear-view mirror: the only thing he’s said since she’d ordered him into the car, threatening to cut his balls off if he didn’t bow to the commands of Great Mother Ocean. He had looked at her with a mixture of disbelief and fear, from one good eye (the other being a bloody mess).
Blue is all around. The much-desired goal, full ahead; the emerging, faltering day; and the racing pulses of blue astern, gaining fast, sirens wailing. Morrison floors it hard –kickdown spurs the convertible into renewed life. He grimaces, and new blood emerges through a warped and broken smile, joining the congealed runnels already running down his chin, his cheeks. First light exposes Morrison’s face as a mass of hideous, open wounds. Alex shifts, slightly, whispers into the heaving carnage, her lips and his almost meeting:
“If you stop now, I’ll kill you.” She jabs the jagged shards into his groin. Just enough to spur him on. Morrison takes the hint.
They race into the dawn.
Fitch is amazing. She’s been up all night, helping to coordinate the emergency response, as well as keeping tabs on the manhunt. At 2 a.m. she had urged Sheepwool to go home and get some sleep, that she’d collect her at dawn, or if anything happened. All Sheepwool can now remember is wafting through the rain-dark streets, the wind still gusting after the storm, as if she were no more than thistledown.
It seems no more than a moment before she hears Fitch’s voice, tetchy at the entryphone. Sheepwool is, frankly, amazed to find herself face down on the bed, still fully dressed. She can’t even remember coming home. She rights herself in the grey north light of early morning and makes her way to the hall. Her clothes feel like they have been worn for far too long, and by someone else.
“Fitch?” She is pleased Fitch can’t see her rearranging her disordered skirt and blouse.
“Ma’am? Get down here as quick as you can. They’re coming.”
The car leaves the last of the dilapidated fencing behind. Once more she and Fitch are in that great prairie void, after the last of the outlying barns of Deringland disappears over the southern horizon, but just before the Deringland Light appears to the north, the mass of the Institute behind it. The sun, behind them and to their right, speaks through ragged clouds, barring Fitch’s face with light as she surges through the gears.
But – that’s odd. There are two suns in the dawn, not one. The second comes from the north.
And as they crest the ridge, the virginal whiteness of the Deringland Light rises against a backdrop of sudden flame.
They cannot get as far as the Institute. The track to the Institute and the car park is crowded with ambulances, fire tenders, paramedics, policemen and people wandering lost, confused and in their nightclothes, carrying anything they could pick up. Others had arrived from elsewhere – to help, to see what they could salvage, or just to watch.
Fitch pulls the car to a halt in a mass of people, and immediately disappears into the throng to coordinate the rescue, shepherding people from danger. Sheepwool is slower to get out of the car, but as she does so, and stands tall, she peers over the crowd to see – Maureen Boynton in a pink quilted dressing gown, being comforted by Lars Johansson in a trench coat, pyjamas and slippers; Janice Squearn and Frankie Honiton, obviously just arrived, with blankets and provisions; Garrison Williams, looking lost and alone.
But all are dwarfed by the shattered hulk behind. The storm has finally undermined the cliff on which the Institute is built. The roof collapsed sometime during the night, smashing through three floors, splintering rafters, cases of specimens, the memories of people. It is not yet known if anyone has died – the building is still well alight and too dangerous to approach.
Even now, as she watches, enormous slabs of wall shear away from the great edifice like slices of a great cake, tumbling seawards, breaking up as they go – peeling back layer upon layer of the vast building, each one applied in a vain attempt to cover up the architectural sins of the previous generation, yet succeeding only in magnifying them.
The fires within illuminate the great Georgian windows bored so carelessly into the Jacobean folly. Great sloughs of Edwardian plasterwork crumble away from the walls, exposing timbers which take up the spreading flames.
Holding on to the car, Sheepwool imagines all that is going down with the building. The ranks upon ranks of stuffed heads; the strange idols; the cases of preserved marine life; the priceless library; the irreplaceable collections of HMS Spaniel; the statue of Sir Frideric.
But most of all, Pickled Lily. Yes, her, most of all.
And then a cry goes out. “Stand back! Everybody back! Clear the road!”
No sooner have the last of the stragglers scurried to safety in the long grass, or in the lighthouse compound, than the roar is heard of an engine in extremis, and shooting into view comes a bright red convertible, top down, trailed by two Police Range Rovers, blaring alarum and flooding the blasted landscape with blue and orange light.
The red car is spattered with mud, exhaust-pipe trailing grey smoke, and at the wheel a man with a face out of a nightmare.
Policemen whisper urgently into radio sets. “It’s them – stop them!” But they cannot. No-one can.
Morrison is close to exhaustion. His one good eye is bloodied so that all he can see is suffused with red. His muscles ache. He has lost so much blood in this last, frenetic chase that he thinks he is probably stuck to the seat and wouldn’t be able to get out, even had he wanted to. The wind stings his broken face. It’s painful, but he’s convinced that it’s the only thing keeping him awake and alive. The Police are behind him – they’ve trailed him, practically all the way from Thetford.
But he’s beaten them.
The Board of MagusPharm is probably not far behind the Boys in Blue. But they don’t want him. And he doesn’t want them. Not really. Ain’t gonna work for MagusPharm no more.
He’s beaten them, too.
If he could grin, he would. But it hurts even to think of trying.
But what’s this? A welcome-home committee? People are too kind. And, fuck me, look at the Institute. Morrison, old son, you got out just in time. He was always the great expert at the time-honoured rat-deserts-sinking-ship routine.
For the first time in more than fifty miles he takes his foot off the accelerator and the car starts to slow down. The orange and blue lights in the rear view mirror start to come closer.
And then he remembers why he is driving so fast, and must drive still faster. All it takes is the stab of a broken bottle in the balls and the ferocious whisper in his ear – “Drive, you filth. By the Great Mother Ocean – drive!”
Morrison floors it. What the hell.
Sheepwool is rooted to the spot as the drama unfolds. The car – bearing Morrison and Alex, she is sure – first slows down. And then Alex, her hair blowing like pennants in the breeze, says something to Morrison, who looks in a very bad way indeed, and the car speeds up again, heading straight into the ruined building at what must be at least seventy or eighty miles an hour. It jounces and jolts through the gaps in the front wall where the gravel of the car park gives almost directly into the scorched parquet of the exhibition hall, and hits an obstacle – no, it can’t be – it’s Pickled Lily’s case, going up like a torch with all that alcohol. Tipping forwards and over the case, the car catches fire and explodes like a star shell.
The two bodies are thrown clear.
One careens through the air, and – oh no – it comes closer and closer – to her – blotting out the sun, blotting out the sky – and lands with a sickening crunch about ten yards from where she is standing. Paramedics rush up. Pierced with many wounds, clothes in tatters, face ruined, Morrison lies dead, with one eye open, and the remains of a smile that seems to go all the way round his head.
The other body is launched over the sea like a bloody comet.
The host who was once a woman named Alex Beach comes home. Her body falls into the healing waves from far above, and dives far beneath, clothed in a mass of bubbles. The sea is rich and blue. It is where she belongs.
Out of a still deeper blue they rush up to welcome her, to pull her to greater and more wonderful depths. Far out to sea, the host who was once a woman named Alex Beach looks down to see her body unfurl like the petals of the most beautiful flower. Her red juice, her red nectar, gushes out like a cloud, and with it, her baby.
Look at your baby, Alex. Look at it.
The little thing has the loveliest face, with blue-grey eyes and dark hair. Her tail is blue and shines in the faint sparkles of sun from far above. One flick of it, and she has gone, without once looking back, vanished into the indigo dark.
The host who was once a woman named Alex Beach looks at her baby, and smiles. One last time.
Evening falls. Detective Sergeant Elaine Fitch comes home. She locks the car and trudges up the garden path. But the door is open wide and a welcoming light floods out – or it would do, were her husband not standing in the way. Warm arms surround her, tightly. A big, rough hand cradles the back of her head, running through her curls. She buries her face in his big chest and sobs: “What a day,” she says, “what a day.”
Jason Fitch, Builder, says nothing. He doesn’t have to. Elaine (here she’s just ‘Elaine’, or ‘Pet’, or ‘Mum’, but never ‘Fitch’) knows that the kids will all be in bed (except Dean, who’s probably playing on his computer). And she can smell something good from the kitchen.
Winter falls once again on Deringland, but the residents take it with a degree of stoicism, for they know that Spring will follow, eventually. And things are valued here which take their time.
Looking towards the cliffs from the French windows of his bungalow, Chief Superintendant Methwold muses on his future. He muses largely to himself, even though he has company, in the form of Detective Inspector Sheepwool. Percy. He hopes (and this is something he really does keep to himself) that she might stay the night.
Maybe. One day.
But Percy has wounds that are slow to heal. He knows that as well as anyone. That’s why she came up here in the first place. And he has wounds, too. Slow to heal. Those cliffs. Maybe he’ll move. That nice barn conversion in Tribenham is still for sale, knockdown price. He wonders why it hasn’t shifted.
Bit big for him though, on his own.
Anyway, she’s told him she doesn’t really like pink chrysanthemums very much. That’s a habit he’ll have to break. And, oh yes, talking to himself. That’s another one. Perhaps, he thinks more positively, he should seek to reacquire an old habit he thought was once lost, without hope of rescue.
He might be able to forgive the sea, but he will never be able to forget.
Acknowledgements from the Author
To Jennifer Rohn, for her willingness to serialize the story on LabLit.com as I wrote it; to the regulars on the LabLit community forums for their further encouragement and suggestions; to Karl Ziemelis, for constant (indeed, daily) encouragement, and for suggesting the name ‘Pickled Lily’; to my agents, Jill Grinberg and Kirsten Wolf, for encouraging me to pursue fiction and try a ‘puzzle book’; to Jeff Crook, purveyor of Southern Gothic, for further encouragement, and whose acceptance of my flash-horror story Pickled Lily for his Postcards from Hell series was the spur to stop thinking about this novel and start writing it; to my daughter Phoebe, for inventing the names both of Sheepwool and the Dazed Haddock (complete with the pub sign); and to the fine seaside town of Cromer, Norfolk, where I am proud to live, and which, although vaguely recognizable in some of its outlines (the real-life Solstice Sea Bathers actually swim on Boxing Day), is different in every case where it really matters, and is in all respects much nicer than Deringland – I offer my thanks. Nothing remotely like the Lowdley-Purring Institute is to be found in Cromer (although parts of it were inspired by several other real places), and its residents, and the other residents of Deringland, are works of fiction.
Except for the mermaids, of course. They’re entirely real. Honest.