HE WHO LAUGHS LONGEST.
Sunday the 22nd
As always, it started with a death.
It was Sunday afternoon in late October 2006, and I had been lodging with Urban-Smith for about two months. I was sat on the sofa in the living room, reading a gentlemen’s periodical, when he burst in, obviously in a state of some arousal. He was clutching a piece of A4 paper and waving it as if trying to hail a passing hansom cab.
“I have just received the most intriguing e-mail,” said he. I tried my best to feign indifference, but I knew from recent experience that whatever had put my friend into such a state was sure to have a similar effect on my demeanour also. He threw himself into his favourite armchair and, unbidden, began to read.
“Dear Mr Urban-Smith, I need to see you as a matter of the greatest urgency. I have no doubt that you read with sadness in the notices of the recent death of Professor Trofim Gorshkov, of the Neuroscience Research Centre at St Onker’s University, London.
Trofim was my colleague and mentor, and shocked as I was by his death, I am even more shocked by the manner in which it occurred. The more I consider the circumstances, the more convinced am I that his death was not one of natural cause.
I wish permission to visit you at your residence this evening, perhaps around six. Please e-mail me your agreement.
Your humble servant.
Dr Herman Grove.”
He shook the paper triumphantly. “What do you make of it, Rupert?”
“It certainly raises more questions than it answers. Do you know anything of this chap’s death?”
“Indeed I do. According to his obituary which I have just read online, Professor Trofim Gorshkov died unexpectedly at around ten P.M on Friday, the sixth of October, whilst out dining with his wife and work colleagues. I think that we can safely assume from this e-mail that one of these colleagues was Dr. Grove. The Professor apparently left a widow, and one daughter.”
“Were you acquainted with Professor Gorshkov?”
He shook his head. “Not directly, though we had corresponded by e-mail on several occasions. Have you read any of my published research on the mapping of underground river distributaries through the tracking of corresponding resonant frequencies in the surrounding bedrock?”
I flipped through the pages of my magazine. “They seem to have omitted it from this month’s issue.”
“Well, Rupert, you’ve missed a treat. Anyway, the Professor’s earliest work was in the use of narrow spectrum radiotherapy to target specific tumours, depending on their resonant frequency. I referenced several of his papers in my own work. But I digress; our visitor should be at our door any moment.”
And indeed he was. As I looked to the mantel clock which read six o’clock precisely, there came a sharp rapping at the front door.
“Ah! Right on time.”
We listened to the stealthy footfall of Mrs Denford upon the stair, and then the sound of brief introductions across the threshold. A few moments later, there was a knock at the living room door, and Mrs Denford opened the door to admit Dr. Grove.
“Fairfax, there’s a gentleman here to see you.”
“Thank you very kindly, Mrs Denford.”
“Will you take some tea?”
“That would be delightful, thank you, Mrs Denford.” He indicated a chair. “Please have a seat, Dr. Grove.”
Dr. Grove was a middle aged gentleman of medium height and build, dressed in a thick, brown, knitted jumper, blue denim jeans and plain brown boots. He wore an inexpensive digital wristwatch on his left wrist, and I noticed the absence of a wedding ring. He was clean shaven, and his hair was dark brown, curly and shot through here and there with grey. His dark eyes were slightly bloodshot, and he looked as if he had not slept well for several days. He lowered himself gratefully into an armchair.
“Thank you, Mr Urban-Smith.”
“Please, call me Fairfax. This is my friend and colleague, Dr Rupert Harker.” I leaned forward and shook his hand. Dr. Grove looked anxiously at Urban-Smith, who smiled reassuringly. “Rupert has my utmost confidence. You may speak freely in front of us both.” He steepled his fingers. “I perceive that although you live locally, you have chosen to travel by taxi cab, and that you are fearful of having been followed.”
Dr. Grove was very much taken aback. “How could you know such a thing? I have barely spoken a word since my arrival.” His eyes darted from Urban-Smith to me, and I raised my hands in recusement.
“My dear Dr. Grove, the evidence for my assertion is laid as bare as the young ladies in Dr. Harker’s reading material. As you entered, I was immediately struck by the smell of cigarette smoke on your clothing, yet I see from your fingers that you yourself are no smoker. Had you travelled by public transport or in your own car, you should not have been exposed to it.
That you live locally is evident from your ability to precisely judge your arrival time to the very minute, demonstrating a familiarity with local traffic routes and volume.
As for the fear of being followed, I have already deduced that you travelled by taxi, yet I heard no car door closing. In addition, I see that your hair is mildly damp, as are your boot soles and trouser bottoms. I presume that you asked the driver to drop you at the end of the street, so that you could check for suspicious activity before revealing your destination.”
Dr. Grove allowed himself a slight smile. “You are indeed correct on all counts, Sir. Perhaps I am being overcautious, but there is something about this affair that has filled me with a loathsome dread which I cannot shake from my person.”
Urban-Smith reached for a pad and paper. “Do not mistake my doodling as a sign of disinterest. It preoccupies the right hemisphere of the brain, allowing the left hemisphere to process information undiverted.” He indicated the copious canvases, brushes and tubes of artist’s paint which littered the room. “It is for the same reason that I paint, especially when I have a weighty problem bearing upon me. Pray, continue with your tale.”
“Thank you, Sir. As I have intimated in my e-mail, Trofim and I were both work colleagues and friends. We spoke daily, and I would socialise regularly with both he and his wife, Ulyana.”
“You yourself are unmarried, are you not?”
“That is correct,” confirmed Dr. Grove. “The sixth of October was the night of the St Onker’s Staff Annual Dinner and Dance. The event takes place on the first Friday of October every year, and for the last few years it has been hosted at the Putz Hotel in Euston. The celebrations usually continue into the small hours, and Trofim and Ulyana were in the habit of staying overnight at the hotel.”
“What about you, Dr. Grove? Did you also book a room?”
“No. I prefer to sleep in my own bed. I have always been of an insomniac disposition, due to a long standing malady of the spleen, which I inherited from my father’s side.” Urban-Smith made a circular motion with his hand, and Dr. Grove continued his narrative. “About two hundred people generally attend each year, and this year was no exception. I was sat at a table of ten, including Trofim and Ulyana. We had met in the bar beforehand and enjoyed a restorative or two before the start of dinner. Trofim seemed his usual self, talkative and lively, and I was relieved, as he had seemed distracted for a week or two prior to that evening. Additionally that very week, our department had been the victim of a burglary. Much of Trofim’s research had been stolen, and the whole affair had proved most dreadful and vexatious to all.”
“Were any other departments burglarised?” asked Urban-Smith.
“Not to my knowledge.”
“And what precisely was stolen from the Professor?”
“His laptop computer, his desktop computer hard-drive, and an infrasonic polytone generator and speakers. It was not a great pecuniary loss, but the data that was on the computers was irreplaceable. Trofim’s research was set back months.”
“Would you be able to obtain for me a copy of the Professor’s Curriculum Vitae and a list of his published research?”
“Of course. I’ll e-mail it to you. As I say, Trofim’s mood had lightened considerably, and we were all enjoying ourselves thoroughly. As the evening progressed and the wine flowed, Trofim seemed to become more animated, and during a particularly sensational anecdote, managed to spill red wine over his jacket and shirt. Once our laughter had abated, he excused himself to his hotel room to change his clothes.”
“Did Mrs Gorshkov accompany him?”
“She rose to do so, but he asked her to remain. She gave him the hotel room keycard, and he withdrew to change his shirt. He was gone no more than ten minutes. He had changed into a clean, white dress shirt, and had managed to remove the worst of the stain from his jacket, though some remained upon his lapel.”
Urban-Smith put his pad down on the table. “Of this last fact, you are sure. It was the same jacket?”
“Indeed it was.”
“Apart from the fresh shirt, did you perceive any other alteration in the Professor’s appearance?”
“No, Mr Urban-Smith. None whatsoever.”
Urban-Smith again picked up his pad and pencil. “What time did the Professor leave the table?”
“A little before ten o’clock I think, though I did not notice the exact time, for I was engrossed in conversation. I am however certain that it could have been no more than ten minutes later when Trofim rejoined us. It was then that the evening took a dark and ghastly diversion.” At this point, Dr. Grove became pale and tremulous to such an extent, that I became fearful that he would succumb to the vapours.
I rose from my chair. “Mrs Denford!” I called. “Please fetch a glass of water.”
“No, no!” Our guest raised his hand in protest. “Just allow me a moment to regain my clarity.”
“Are you sure?” I asked.
Dr. Grove nodded frantically. “Please. I will recover presently.” At this juncture, Mrs Denford arrived with a tray of tea and buns.
“Here you are, gentlemen.”
“My dear Mrs Denford,” I cried. “You are a lifesaver. Please, Dr. Grove. You must attempt to raise your circulating glucose, or you may succumb.”
“As you wish,” capitulated the good doctor, “for I have no desire to become incomprehensible.” We paused for a few minutes to drink tea and eat buns, and Dr. Grove soon regarnered his former resolve.
“I am sorry, gentlemen,” apologised Dr. Grove presently, “my splenic infirmity has taken its toll this afternoon, but I now feel capable of resuming, if you consent.” Urban-Smith and I nodded our approval.
“Well, as I say, Trofim had just returned to the Putz ballroom. Ulyana rose in order to greet him, and they both took their seats, yet barely had his weight settled, and his phone began to ring. Even over the music and chatter, the tone was quite clear; it was some Russian anthem, I cannot name it. He rummaged in his jacket pocket and withdrew his phone. For a few moments, he fumbled with it, before successfully accepting the call and raising the phone to his ear. At that precise moment, I became stricken with a most fearful dread and foreboding, as if some dastardly misfortune were to overcome me. My mouth became dry, yet my palms ran with sweat. My heart pounded ferociously, and the bile rose from my liver into my throat. Trofim’s face had become waxen, his eyes betrayed no consciousness, and his mouth was locked in a rictus. There issued forth from him a dry chuckling, which became a gleeful chortle, then an insane guffawing. All within earshot were transfixed. He brayed and roared like a madman, yet the effect was in no way joyful. Ulyana began shaking him and shouting his name, but he did not acknowledge. Foam began to collect at his jowls, his eyes rolled upwards into their sockets, and he was seized by an eruptive fit, the violence of which threw him bodily from his chair. As he collapsed upon the floor, I witnessed his head and upper body jerk backwards, and his arms and legs become rigidly extended. Despite our best efforts to resuscitate, we were unable to revive him. His spirit left him at precisely ten oh six on the sixth of the tenth.”
“Hmmmm,” murmured Urban Smith, “most palindromic. Was there an autopsy undertaken?”
“Indeed there was. Ulyana advises me that the cause of death was deemed to be a stroke.”
Urban-Smith looked to me. “What is your diagnosis, Dr. Harker?”
“Well,” I said, “although a little atypical, a stroke seems the most likely explanation.”
“Can a stroke lead to convulsions, such as those described?”
“Absolutely. Stroke is the commonest cause of a seizure in the elderly.”
He nodded. “I see, I see. And would this account for the paroxysms of mirth, so competently described by Dr. Grove?”
I chewed my lip thoughtfully. “I have not come across it before, but I can think of two possible explanations. One would be that the epileptic activity was concentrated most strongly in the temporal lobe, causing an alteration of perception, resulting in feelings of intense amusement and good humour. It would also account for his waxen appearance and behavioural arrest.”
“Can you please elaborate?”
“Certainly. Temporal lobe epilepsy produces three phases. The first phase is an aura. This is typically described as an altered state of awareness, classically déjà vu or derealisation. There then follows a stimulation of the autonomic nervous system, leading to rapid pulse and clamminess. The seizure itself commences with the victim becoming motionless and unresponsive. In some, the fit will then progress to a generalised convulsion, with jerking of the limbs, foaming at the mouth and collapse. It is reasonable to assume that a haemorrhage into the temporal lobe could reproduce this pattern of seizure activity.”
“Am I incorrect in thinking that emotional lability is common after a stroke?”
“No, Fairfax, you are correct, but it wouldn’t usually occur until at least a week after the acute event.”
“Thank you, Rupert. What was your second hypothesis?”
“Well,” I continued, “there is a rare condition called gelastic epilepsy which presents as unprovoked laughter or crying. It is usually associated with the presence of a tumour, rather than a stroke, but it is not unusual to have areas of haemorrhage within a tumour, causing rapid expansion.”
Urban-Smith began his doodling again. “Is it possible that the laughter was not the symptom of the stroke, but its cause?”
“I have never known it. That isn’t to say that it is not possible. There have been rare cases of laughter-induced fits.”
“Dr. Grove. My friend and colleague has provided us with a perfectly reasonable explanation of the events that have so troubled you. Are you satisfied?”
Dr. Grove shook his head. “Please do not take this as a slight upon your expertise, doctor, but my unease has not lifted. It may be mere coincidence that Trofim succumbed to his stroke as he answered his phone, but how does that account for my discomfort and affliction as he did so?”
“Mere coincidence again,” I stated. “You have already told us of your splenic insufficiency, and demonstrated earlier your vulnerable constitution. I fear that you could be blighted by further attacks at any given moment.”
“Not so fast, dear Rupert,” interjected Urban-Smith. “Before we formulate any definite conclusions, there are some matters that require clarification. Dr. Grove stated that the Professor appeared to fumble with his mobile telephone. Does that not strike you as peculiar?”
“I can’t say that it does. Would a man who had drank sufficiently to upset his wineglass not struggle to manipulate a telephone?”
“Perhaps so; but is the recent theft of the Professor’s research also mere coincidence? Tell us, Dr. Grove, what was the nature of Professor Gorshkov’s research at the time of his death?”
“You are of course familiar with PET scans, which are used to show areas of increased metabolic activity.” Indeed we were. “Trofim was using PET scans to show which areas of the brain showed decreased function at times of anxiety and fear. He was hoping to help phobia sufferers by stimulating those areas of the brain that become suppressed when a phobic is exposed to their phobia trigger. The stimulation of the various centres of the brain is of course far easier that their suppression.”
“I have one final question for you, doctor. It is perhaps the most pertinent of all. Have you ever seen a ghost?”
Dr. Grove clenched both his fists and his jaw. “You mock me, sir?”
“In no way. Please answer me honestly.”
“I suppose the truth can do no harm to the innocent. Yes, Mr Urban-Smith. On more than one occasion.”
“Thank you, Dr. Grove.” Urban-Smith rose from his chair, and Dr. Grove and myself did likewise. “I shall investigate this matter to my fullest capacity. Please send me that information at your earliest convenience, and I shall contact you in a few days.”
We all shook hands, and the doctor departed.
Urban-Smith rubbed his hands gleefully. “This case presents several truly singular conundrums that I wish to pursue. Would you be able to obtain a copy of his post-mortem report?”
“Surely, you cannot suspect foul play?” I protested.
“I have not yet formulated my opinions. Perhaps you would care to inspect my notes?” He handed me his notepad, upon which he had drawn a most unflattering caricature of our guest, prostrate upon a hospital bed complete with intravenous drip and oxygen mask. A nil by mouth sign hung at the foot of the bed.
He sighed deeply. “That poor man is a martyr to his spleen. Please remind me, Rupert. Upon which side would one locate one’s spleen?”
“That would be the inside, my dear fellow.”