The Misadventures of Isabel Instance: III

The story so far: Isabel Instance, librarian and friend to the dead, and her deceased associate Aelfric Fouracre are investigating the curious case of Gary Simmons, who has put his mother in the freezer.


Aelfric Fouracre is the only really alive dead person Isabel Instance has met – he is marvellously unique, as he regularly likes to remind her. She’s seen ghosts before, ever since she was a child, but never one openly visible to the general public, able to touch, to smoke in a way he wrongly imagines is French and debonair, and generally to all intents and purposes be indistinguishable from someone who is alive – apart from lacking a certain radiance, a certain bright colourful edge, which must be what people call auras, Isabel supposes, and which she’d probably be able to see properly if she concentrated. She refuses to do so, however. It’s bad enough being able to see the dead without getting involved in that kind of nonsense.

They met at the University Library. She was behind the desk watching the dead people milling around the living (there were always more dead people than living people in the University Library). She didn’t notice him waiting to order a book until he coughed and asked pleasantly whether, if she absolutely had to gawp so flagrantly at the host of the undead, she could do so after processing his request. He smiled smugly at her dumbstruck expression, handed her a card that read simply, ‘Aelfric Fouracre: investigator’, told her to call him Ael, but to be sure she pronounced it correctly, by which he meant Ay-el, not Ale, which would be a foolish name, added that it was Saxon and less of an affectation than that might seem given that it had been the Saxon period when he had received it, and told her he was going to buy her a cup of tea and educate her about the world of the dead. He marched off, weaving his way between a Victorian ghost biting its lip uncertainly as if looking for its hat and a pallid dead businessman drifting out of the reading room. After a long moment Isabel followed dutifully, with a kind of irritated wonder. Which she’s been doing ever since, she reflects wryly. On and off.

“This is the general situation,” Ael says, leaning back in his seat as they stutter through the traffic. “This afternoon at 12.42 Gary Simmons telephones the ambulance service, disorientated and upset, and announces the death of his elderly mother. The paramedics arrive at Ashfield Road at 13.01, but he won’t open the door. While they deliberate as to their best course, Gary instructs them to fetch a priest from the upstairs window. All in good time, they reply. However, it seems he wants a priest rather more promptly than that, and he claims to have a gun with which to press his case. At which point, obviously, the police get involved.”

“And are now, presumably, surrounding the house,” Isabel says, changing gear.

“Doubtless,” Ael says airily. Isabel looks at him, and he looks back, insouciant. She decides not to discuss the difficulties this will cause them. “Plod will be scratching his head and waiting for something to happen, I should think,” Ael says. “More importantly from our point of view is why this all happened. From what I can gather, the official view is that he became distressed at the sight of the corpse, and slung her into the freezer on the spur of the moment. Since when he has been sub compos mentis. But I think he’d been planning it. I think she was alive when he put her in.”

Isabel sighs. “You would. And in your wisdom have you come up with a reason why?”

“Why kill her? There’s all sorts…

“No, why freeze her.”

Ael leans forward eagerly. “Well, my theory is that he fancied it the perfect crime. He gives her a dose of sleeping pills, nothing fatal, just enough to knock her out. Then he pops her in the freezer till sure she’s dead, takes her out, defrosts her, sits her back in bed, who’d be any the wiser?”

Isbael frowns. “But he hasn’t… I mean, she’s still in the freezer, right?”

Ael waves away this irrelevance. “Lost his nerve halfway through, I expect. Happens often enough.”

“Hmm,” Isabel says, wondering where to begin. “Er… it just seems a bit unlikely. Surely the pathologist would be able to tell what had happened, for one thing.”

“Well, I’m not sure I could distinguish, for example, between a fresh chicken nugget and one that had been defrosted.”

Up ahead, a green light goes to amber. Isabel tries to accelerate to beat the red. The van wheezes, and she gives up the idea, slowing to a halt. While they wait for the light she looks at Ael pensively. She’s surprised, given his hopelessly dated outlook on the world, that he knows what a chicken nugget is. She went to a supermarket with him once, and watched him steer his trolley gingerly like a traveller in an exotic land. Every now and then he plucked items like insta-noodles off the shelf and chuckled with indulgent incredulity before replacing them. She tried to beam waves of apology at the other shoppers, but everyone was so used to what they called ‘autism’ – by which they meant any unembarrassed eccentricity – that she and Ael were ignored.

The light turns green. “I think it’s a bit more complicated than that with bodies,” Isabel says as they move off. “I mean, eyes, and organs, and things. It would probably show up.”

He grunts. “It would make for an interesting autopsy,” he says. “Anyway. No point speculating yet. Let’s see what Maureen’s spirit makes of it all.”

“If she’s there.”

“She’ll be there. Would you leave your body in with the fish-fingers?”

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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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