The Misadventures of Isabel Instance: II

Isabel Instance and Aelfric Fouracre edge slowly through the perpetual Cambridge rush hour, traffic light to traffic light. Between each green Isabel floors the accelerator to keep up with the other vehicles on the road. The van’s splendid indifference to the throttle is the main reason she owns it. At an early stage of adult life Isabel reluctantly acknowledged two facts. The first: she loved speed. The second: she was an appalling driver. Buying the slowest possible vehicle was self-preservation.

As they approach Mill Road Ael stirs himself for the first time. “We can’t stop, I’m afraid.”

Isabel looks at him. She’s been driving them to her flat, three rooms in the roof of a terrace house out near Brookfields. This is their routine. Ael finds the case, using, so he claims, his network – a group of mysterious would-be spies communicating via cryptic classified ads in local papers. Isabel is doubtful about the real extent of the network, and sometimes even about the basic fact of its existence: she suspects he just watches the local news and takes it from there. Anyway. Once he has something he rings and demands that she collect him on her way home from the library. They go to her flat and she opens a bottle of wine while he watches TV. He is addicted to TV: most dead people she’s met are. She has one glass for Dutch courage, and leaves the rest waiting for when they get back. If it sounds like a difficult job, she makes sure there’s at least one other bottle lined up, which is never usually a problem. Her flat seems to be full of wine bottles poking out from unlikely locations. The weight and uniformity of her recycling box is a source of great satisfaction to her. Only when she feels as ready as she ever gets do they hit the road.

“Why not?” Isabel asks, feeling stubborn, though she knows it is pointless. She has been wilful her entire life, but his obstinacy is on a whole new level.

“This one’s urgent,” he says, adjusting some invisible crease in his clothing. An old-fashion suit with a sweater under the jacket, even in this heat. Isabel has told him before that this habitual dress makes him look ridiculously middle-aged, but maybe, after you died, looking middle-aged was not something you minded about too much.

“So hang on. We’ve been driving home all this time. Why didn’t you tell me?”

“You were already going the right way. And I was busy. Thinking.”

Isabel sighs. “I can’t believe I’m not even going to get a drink first. Go on, then. Tell me.”

Ael half-turns to face her. When he’s full of delighted anticipation, like now, he reminds her of a teacher at the start of a lesson he knows will be entertaining. He looks quite like a teacher, too, the kind to inspire crushes. His refined face and curly dark hair would work wonders on impressionable students. He should give it a go, one day, Isabel thinks: teaching, or maybe giving lectures with an artful stammer to rows of earnest adoring girls with big hair and glasses. He’d enjoy that kind of attention.

“Our concern is one Maureen Simmons, pensioner,” he says carefully. “As was. She lived in Ashfield Road in Chesterton sharing a terraced house with her only son Gary, 34, lab technician, single.”

Isabel clenches her hands around the steering wheel. Here it comes, then. Another one; another murder. Nearly all their clients are murder victims. Mostly because visiting the scene of violent death is the only real way to locate new ghosts – which are the only kind they have a hope of helping – but partly, Isabel suspects, because Ael simply enjoys the human depravity involved.

“What’s he done to her, then?” she asks resignedly.

He looks smug. “Have a guess. Anything you like. You’ll never get it.”

She shakes her head. His passion for the exotically macabre is inexhaustible. What is bizarre enough to have piqued his interest this time? “So he’s… he’s always had a pensioner fetish,” she says eventually. “Gets off on Saga catalogues. Then time goes by, he sees his mother turning into the object of his desire. Paralysed by his mounting attraction, he… um… he strangles her with a girdle?”

Ael nods judiciously. “That’s rather good,” he allows. “But not even close, I’m afraid. He’s put her in the freezer.”

Isabel looks at him narrowly. He is beaming at her, really thrilled. His boundless enthusiasm is, she supposes, one of his good points.

“In the freezer?”

“He’s locked himself in the house with her and says he’ll only come out if they send a priest. He wants the freezer consecrated, you see? Wants to be with her forever.”

Sweet Lord. No wonder Ael is in such a good mood. “Imaginative, isn’t it?” he says happily. “Collect the ice-cream and pay one’s respects at the same time. An admirable convenience given the busy lifestyles of the age.”

Isabel says nothing. Another stitch in the tapestry of death’s infinite variety. Unnatural causes come in all shapes and sizes, if you know where to look. And she and Ael have had practice. A lot of practice.

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Will le Fleming is a novelist. His debut, Central Reservation, is published by Xelsion and available now. Read more...

On a grey Thursday morning Holly lay in bed, staring at the ceiling, and wished her sister would die. Five hours later her wish came true. Read more...

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