A MEETING OF MINDS.
Of course I had heard of him, even before I moved to London. Who hasn’t heard of the legendary Fairfax Urban-Smith, author, detective, paranormal investigator and one-man cause célèbre?
It was the summer of 2006, and I had just taken up post of Senior Teaching Fellow at the London Metropolitan Forensic Pathology Unit, based at St Clifford’s Hospital. I had been forced to abandon a promising career in geriatric medicine when I had contracted a severe case of viral Tourette’s, and for several months my vocabulary was rendered so unpalatable that my career was despaired of, and it was deemed only appropriate for me to work with those residents of the hospital who had already stepped into the light, as it were. By the time I had recovered my etiquette, my confidence had become irrevocably traumatised, and I had taken to spending much of the day with a rubber ball in my mouth to moderate my uncontrollable outbursts (which is incidentally how I developed my predilection for restrictive procreative interaction, though that is perhaps not a tale which I feel at ease to relate).
On this particular morning, I was about to commence an autopsy on the victim of a circular saw to the head when I became aware of a presence at my shoulder.
I turned and looked up. He stood about six inches taller than I, with straight brown hair and light blue eyes. His long nose was slightly hooked at the tip and looked like it had been broken more than once (it would soon become apparent to me the reason for this). He was dressed in casual trousers and shirt, with an Eton tie, and sporting a laminated visitor’s badge pinned to his lapel.
“Who are you?” I demanded.
He smiled benignly. “Fairfax Urban-Smith. Please call me Fairfax. And you are Doctor Rupert Harker, the new pathologist, am I correct?”
“Call me Rupert. What is your interest in this case?”
“Power-tool suicide is very unusual in the UK. I’m writing a paper on the topic.”
“Suicide?” I was appalled. The poor man’s head had been cleaved almost completely in two. The idea that someone could inflict such a heinous wound upon themselves was unthinkable. “What makes you say it was suicide?”
“Even without the suicide note, I would have thought that it was obvious from his hands.”
I inspected his hands. “Nails short but uneven, bitten or broken rather than trimmed, callus on the palms, a few splinter haemorrhages, multiple small abrasions on the knuckles. Manual work of some description.” I looked at Urban-Smith. “So he knew his way around a toolbox. How does that prove it was suicide?”
“Surely the lack of defensive wounds to the hands and forearms is suggestive?”
“I had rather assumed that he had been rendered incapable or unconscious before the final blow was delivered.”
He tutted. “Do you see any evidence to support that theory?”
Now it was my turn to tut. “Give me a chance! I haven’t even started yet.”
“Precisely my point! You have jumped to an erroneous conclusion based on insufficient evidence. If you approach this autopsy expecting foul play, then that is precisely what you are going to uncover. Your inclination will be to skip over any contrary evidence and lend inappropriate gravity to that which supports your theory.”
I was feeling rather haughty at this point, and drew myself up to my full three score and five inches. “Are you questioning my integrity?”
He snorted derisively. “My dear doctor, I have yet to see it.”
Mercifully Danny, the mortuary assistant intervened before any blood had been shed.
“Morning, Fairfax. Perhaps it would be best if you let our new doctor get on with his work unmolested.”
Urban-Smith took a deep breath. “Of course, Danny. You are quite correct.” He directed his comments to me once more. “I am sorry, Rupert. Please accept my apologies.”
I began to simmer down. “Accepted!” I straightened my spectacles and my tie. “So tell me, what were the contents of the note?”
“The suicide note.”
“Ah!” He nodded. “There was no suicide note. Not to my knowledge anyhow. I know nothing of the facts of the case. I received a text from Danny this morning advising me that there had been a violent death that may be of interest to me.”
I was perplexed. “But you told me that there was a suicide note.”
“A complete fabrication; I merely wished to make a point.”
“And what point would that be?” I asked angrily.
“My point is that although that your hypotheses regarding this man’s demise are the most probable, they are by no means the only possible ones. You should not allow your personal experience or expectations to govern your reasoning. If you do, you will confine your conclusions only to those within your previous acquaintance.”
I could not help myself; I laughed heartily. “My good man, you could tie knots in girders with your logic. If I understand correctly, you are saying that even though such a grisly suicide may be beyond my comprehension, it does not preclude its occurrence.”
“Exactly, Rupert! Exactly!”
And so it was that I was first introduced to Mr Fairfax Urban-Smith.
Over the next fortnight, I met him twice more at the mortuary, and it was on our third meeting that he asked me something which, to me, seemed utterly remarkable; to join him at his lodgings. I was quite taken aback.
“My dear Fairfax, we hardly know one another. What makes you think that we will tolerate each other’s company?”
“When unprovoked, you are a man of few words, Rupert. In addition, you appear to be both clean and well attired. These are the qualities that I covet most highly in a potential lodger.”
“What happened to your last lodger?” I asked. “Did he commit suicide with a circular saw during one of your conversations?”
“Nothing so macabre, no. My brother and I inherited the house from our parents, and have both lived there since we left home. We each attended universities in London and until now neither of us has seen a necessity to relocate. However two months ago my brother accepted a Professorship at Crumble College, Cambridge, and I now find myself in the unenviable position of having to buy his half of the house. Unfortunately I do not have a spare six hundred thousand pounds, and I must take a lodger to help to cover the mortgage.”
Having spent the previous six weeks in hospital accommodation, and being unable to afford a flat of my own, I decided to venture further.
“Where is this house?”
“Marylebone; a stone’s throw from Baker Street Underground Station. Number sixteen Chuffnell Mews to be precise. It is a lovely, little three-bed terraced. Just you, me and Mrs Denford. Mrs Denford takes care of the cooking, cleaning, washing and ironing. All meals included, two hundred and fifty per week.”
I shrugged. “It sounds ideal. When can I see it?”
“Come over tonight, about seven.”
Chuffnell Mews is a quiet street, owing largely to the concrete bollards that divide it halfway down its length, halting any through-traffic wider than a motorcycle. Number sixteen was an inoffensive looking mid terraced with a red front door, upon which I rapped loudly with my knuckles.
The door was answered by a grey haired lady, wearing a white pinny and a stern frown. “Dr. Harker, I presume.”
“Mrs Denford?” She nodded and I held out my hand. “A pleasure to meet you.” Mrs Denford had a handshake as steely as her gaze.
“Come this way,” said she, turning and shuffling down the narrow hallway towards the stairs. Midway down the hall, on the right side was the kitchen, and opposite, the living room into which I was ushered to find Urban-Smith deep in concentration, painting with oil upon canvas.
“Fairfax. You have a visitor.”
“Come in, Rupert, come in,” he said enthusiastically without turning around. Mrs Denford withdrew to the kitchen, and I entered the living room. It was deceptively spacious, stretching the whole length of the house, affording an excellent view of Chuffnell Mews to the front, and to the rear, a paved courtyard in which a large black and white cat was sitting, cleaning its paws.
“Is that your cat?”
“No. Edward lives next door, but he visits often.”
The room itself was conservatively decorated with striped wallpaper of gold and green, and a black leather settee and three armchairs. There were several canvases about the room, and the detritus of the artist was strewn about, namely tubes of paint, discarded sketches and brushes. There was a modest sized television set in one corner, and a gas fire with mantel against one wall. A low coffee table and several bookcases completed the furnishings.
“What say you of my latest painting?” he asked.
I looked at the canvas, which was liberally spattered and splashed with different colours of blobs, blemishes and brush strokes.
“It looks like nothing on God’s Earth. What is it?”
“It is whatever you wish it to be.”
“I wish it to be elsewhere.”
“Ha!” he laughed. “Ha-ha. I daresay that were I to look up, “droll” in my Webster’s, I should find your picture.” He put down his brush on his easel. “Would you care for the tour?”
“Mrs Denford,” he roared at the top of his voice, causing me to startle like a fawn at a firework display.
“What is it, Fairfax?” Mrs Denford had materialised out from the kitchen.
“Would you be kind enough to show Rupert around the house, please? I am in a critical phase of my composition.”
I am heartened to report that the house was very pleasing. My room appeared comfortable and tastefully appointed, the bathroom was clean, and I could hear no noise from the neighbours at either side. Mrs Denford led me back to the living room.
“Do you like it?” asked Urban-Smith.
“Very much indeed.”
And so it was settled.
Over the next few weeks, I had much occasion to observe my new housemate and landlord, and what a curious creature he proved to be. His habits were most irregular; sometimes he would rise with the dawn and retire with the dusk, at others he would stay awake all night, then sleep until late afternoon. He showed no interest in music, theatre or matters of romance, but had a fascination with what appeared to be the basest of popular culture and the most macabre and arcane of subjects including, but not limited to ghosts, extraterrestrials, human sacrifice and urban legends. In addition he eagerly devoured the daily paper, and made it a habit to watch the Channel 4 news every night, speculating wildly and with abandon about the day’s events. He seemed to have a remarkable talent for seeing each item, not as a disparate entity, but as part of a complex web of interconnected stratagems and circumstance, weaving an elegant tapestry of intrigue and machination over the daily breakfast dishes.
His interpersonal habits were equally mystifying. He received few visitors, but those whom he received were an eclectic collection of policemen, academics and, in some cases, public figures, all eager to seek his counsel behind closed doors.
Socially his manners seemed to go from one extreme to the other, treating strangers with aloof disdain, but greeting even the most casual of acquaintances with the sort of unbridled enthusiasm usually reserved for long-lost siblings.
I knew a little of his reputation as a private detective and investigator of the paranormal, but my curiosity as to his exact modus operandi eventually got the better of me. After co-habiting for several weeks, I ventured to enquire as to the exact nature of his occupational activities.
“I am,” he announced, “to the best of my knowledge, the World’s first and only consulting paranorensicologist.”
“Paranorensicologist,” he repeated. “Paranorensics is the criminal investigation of supernatural phenomena.”
“Is there much demand for that sort of thing in London?” I asked.
“Oh yes. I have carved out rather a lucrative niche for myself. Fascinating too. If you are interested, you are welcome to sit in with me during my forthcoming consultations.”
“I would be delighted,” I replied.
And thus did our acquaintance turn to friendship.