A BEAUTIFUL WIDOW
Tuesday, the 24th
St Clifford’s Hospital was established in 1812 by Percival Clifford, a wealthy philanthropist who had made his fortune from the publication of exotic lithographs. The Hospital was originally established to treat those victims of athlete’s foot and scurvy, a combination known as scruffle.
As the hospital expanded, and as scruffle became a disease of times past, its reputation as a great centre of healing grew with it, and now it shines as a beacon of exemplary practice in the heart of the capital.
The lower basement floor houses the London Metropolitan Forensic Pathology Unit, where I was engaged as Senior Teaching Fellow. My time was divided between the mortuary, where I performed autopsies and studied histological specimens, my office, where I prepared my reports, and the courts, be they Crown or Coroner’s, where I acted as expert witness when the occasion called for such.
Tuesday morning found me at my desk, searching Medline for any articles about thalamic microhaemorrhage. It seemed that the finding was commonly associated with strokes, high blood pressure, old age and smoking, and that thalamic haemorrhage could certainly cause the pattern of collapse that Professor Gorshkov had suffered.
I also found several articles on laughter as a presentation of acute stroke. I was interested to learn that although rare, the phenomenon is well documented and was first described in 1903 by M.C Fere, (not to be confused with M.C Hammer) who dubbed the phenomenon, “fou rire prodromique” (Prodromal crazy laughter).
This seemed to me to tie up very neatly any loose ends; Professor Gorshkov had suffered an acute stroke, manifesting itself in the rare, but recognised pattern known as fou rir prodromique. The stress of recent events (I was later to discover that in addition to the recent burglary, the Professor had also recently lost his mother to cancer) had led to an increase in alcohol intake and blood pressure, producing a derangement in metabolic function which had culminated in the fatal event.
The rest of the day passed without any complications. I performed three autopsies; two casualties of heart disease and one of lung cancer. All three were dismantled and reassembled promptly, and all three reports dictated by four o’ clock, enabling me to leave work early and enjoy a leisurely and scenic walk home. I ambled down Pike Street and Fawn Street, up the Spawn, and then across Bilbury Square, where I stopped at a coffee shop to enjoy a cream bun and a fatty latte.
I joined Urban-Smith at teatime. We sat in the kitchen, enjoying a delicious fish supper, while Mrs Denford fussed about, clucking and tidying around us.
“Dr. Grove has arranged for us to visit the widow Gorshkov tonight, around seven thirty.”
I nodded. “On what pretext?”
“No pretext. He has told her the truth; that he is concerned there may be more to the death than meets the eye.”
“Surely the poor woman has suffered enough?” I proceeded to illuminate Urban-Smith regarding the fruits of my morning’s labours.
He was most interested. “Fou rir prodromique you say? Who was it coined the phrase?”
“French chappie, M.C Fere; turn of the last century.”
“M.C Fere? Not M.C Hammer?”
“Afraid not. So you see, there really seems little reason to trouble the poor woman.”
“Nonetheless,” Urban-Smith insisted, “I would like to see the late Professor’s telephone, if she still has it, and also ask whether she shared Dr. Grove’s awareness of an impending vicissitude.”
We journeyed by taxi, venturing south of the river to Balham in the company of a Polish driver who seemed to be composed of equal parts factory chimney and kamikaze pilot. Miraculously, we survived the journey, and just before half past seven we were deposited, traumatised but unharmed at the home of the widow Gorshkov. Chez Gorshkov was a large pre-war semi- detached at the end of a cul-de-sac, with two cars upon the driveway, a green Ford Fiesta and a blue Ford Mondeo, each bearing last year’s plates.
The driveway was flanked on one side by a paved footpath, and on the other by a slim flower bed, with a hedge to delineate the boundary of the property. We traversed the path and knocked at the door, which was answered by a slender and very beautiful woman in her late forties. Her brown hair, sparsely stippled with silver, flowed about her shoulders, and I was mesmerised by her full lips and dark eyes. She wore a tight fitting blue sweater with a scoop neck, displaying her small, but appealing cleavage, and a pair of cream twill trousers, held in at the waist by a brown fabric belt. Her tan leather, open-toed sandals were a belated homage to the pan-European heatwave that had dominated drawing room conversation all summer, and as I admired her shapely ankles I noticed that her toenails, like her fingernails, were painted pale pink.
Ulyana Gorshkov greeted us with a faint smile and firm handshake, and ushered us through the hall and into the sitting room. The sitting room contained two leather sofas, a large flat-screen television, and a low coffee table. The floor was of laminate composite, and there was a plush red and green rug laid upon it. The walls were lined with a patterned wallpaper, and the light fittings were subtle. At the far end of the room, a set of double doors led through to the dining room which was in darkness.
Urban-Smith and I sat upon one sofa, and she upon the other. She offered us beverages which we declined, and she came straight to it.
“Herman asked me if I could speak with you, Mr Urban-Smith, but I confess that I really cannot understand the purpose of your visit. My husband is dead and gone from a stroke which I witnessed, as did dozens of others. There can be no mystery or suspicion.” Her voice was soft and feminine, her accent heavily tinged with east European.
“Mystery?” asked Urban-Smith.
“Oh, yes. I am aware of your reputation and field of specialisation. You deal in the occult and mysterious, solving riddles and puzzles that have thwarted all others. While I am flattered by your attentions, they seem wholly unsuited to the situation.”
Urban-Smith smiled and lowered his gaze. “Would it offend you if I were to ask you about your husband?”
“Not in the least. I am proud of my husband and all that he has achieved.”
Urban-Smith looked up at her. “It is regretful that I never had the opportunity to speak to him in person. Can you tell us a little of the Professor’s research?”
“Throughout much of his career, Trofim experimented with the use of low frequency resonators to augment narrow beam radiotherapy, trying to find ways to target tumours more effectively and minimise damage to surrounding tissue. More recently, he had been using similar techniques to target specific areas of the brain in order to ease symptoms of phobia and anxiety.”
“Had he made much progress?”
“Indeed he had; studies in rats had proved most encouraging. There was even talk of a nomination for the Nobel Prize.” Her gaze fell. “It grieves me that he did not survive to taste the fruits of his labours.” She fixed us again in her radiant gaze. “Were you aware that Trofim was a lifelong sufferer of papamorsuphobia?”
“A fear of being bitten by the Pope?”
“Yes, indeed. Rosaries would bring him out in a cold sweat.
“How did you and Trofim meet?”
She smiled, and her beauty was redoubled. “We met in the summer of 1978. I was studying geology at the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology, and Trofim was working in the department of Molecular and Biological Physics. He had developed a molecular resonator, the first of its kind, and I wanted to use it to determine the effects of low frequency resonance upon limestone. I was writing a thesis on the effects of earth tremors on the structural integrity of Moscow bedrock.
We had so much in common, and we were engaged within a few months. Trofim’s work took him to Munchkingrad, and I followed. We married in 1980, and in 1982, our daughter, Irina was born.
The early 1990’s were a time of great uncertainty, and we were worried about the quality of our daughter’s education. Professionals, especially teachers were emigrating in great numbers, and we decided to move to England, where we could offer our daughter a more stable environment. Trofim had no difficulty in securing a post, and we have been here ever since.
I can honestly say that our life together has been one of great joy, although this last year had been extremely trying for Trofim.”
“In what way?” asked Urban-Smith.
“Just before Easter, his mother was diagnosed with cancer, and she worsened rapidly. She died just a few weeks ago. And of course the theft. Are you aware of it?”
“Yes, but we have little detail.”
“I am afraid that I can tell you little, other than Trofim lost much of his research. That, I suspect, along with the loss of his mother is what precipitated his stroke. He never showed it, but the theft hit him hard.” Her face darkened. “He suspected that one of his peers from another University may have coveted his research. “I am convinced that it will resurface with another’s name attached,” is what he said.”
“Did he ever point the finger?”
She shook her head. “That was not his way. He preferred to take the proverbial high road.”
“Can you tell us about the night of Trofim’s death?”
She swallowed and her eyes filled with tears. “It was the most harrowing experience of my life. My only consolation is that he succumbed quickly, for he would have hated a prolonged illness or disablement. We had enjoyed a wonderful evening of fine food, dancing and laughter. Trofim had managed to spill wine on his shirt, and had retired to our room to change. He returned a few minutes later, but no sooner had he sat down then his phone rang.”
“Can you remember the ringtone?” asked Urban-Smith.
“I shall never forget it; it was the last thing I heard before he was struck down. It was Koslovsky’s Polonaises. It was his favourite. He lifted the phone to his ear and said hello, and then that awful laughter started. It was nothing like his usual laughter; it was the laugh of a madman, of a lunatic.” She stopped and looked at the floor again for a few moments. “He fell to the floor in a fit, and never recovered.”
“What became of his phone?”
“His phone? I gave it to my daughter. Hers had been stolen.”
Urban-Smith nodded. “I see. Mrs Gorshkov, before your husband collapsed, were you aware of any unusual sensations; any palpitations, nausea or anxiety?”
She shook her head. “No. I had felt fine all evening.”
“Then I think we have taken up enough of your valuable time.” He reached into his pocket and produced a business card. “Here is my number. Please ring me if I can be of assistance in this matter.”
“Thank you Mr Urban-Smith, but only my daughter and my Saviour can walk this path with me.”
Mrs Gorshkov took Urban-Smith’s card, and showed us to the front door. We bid her farewell, and departed.
We hailed a taxi on the Balham High Road, and were rather unnerved to be collected by the same incautious cabman.
“I hope that you are wearing your lucky underpants, Rupert,” muttered Urban-Smith through gritted teeth as we hurtled homewards through the London traffic, “or at the very least, your waterproof ones.”
Once back inside the safety of number sixteen Chuffnell Mews, we retired to the living room. Mrs Denford brought us a tray of tea, and we sat upon the sofa, waiting for our nervous systems to recover from the journey.
“Fairfax,” said I, “I have been pondering what you said about Dr. Grove’s premonition of tragedy. I once read in the New Scientist of dogs that can predict when their owners’ children are going to have a seizure, the dogs apparently displaying changes in behaviour minutes, or even hours before the fit occurs. Perhaps Dr. Grove is part toy poodle.”
Urban-Smith nodded. “It would certainly account for his excitable temperament.”
“In your capacity as a paranormal researcher, have you much experience of sensitives?”
“I have devoted a little time to the subject, but that is not really my field of interest,” he replied. “My particular area of expertise is cryptocartography.”
“The study of secret maps?”
“The mapping of that which is hidden. I am particularly interested in the distribution of underground rivers and their concordance with areas of concentrated geopathic resonant energy.”
“Have you discovered a concordance?”
“Oh, indisputably!” We had hit upon an area of particular fascination to him, and he waved his arms as he spoke, in an exuberant display of enthusiasm. “It is my opinion that these foci of energy are caused by turbulent underground water flow, with the resultant kinetic energy giving rise to charged particles within the surrounding bedrock. This creates an electromagnetic lattice within the bedrock, the intersections of which often correspond to areas of significant preternatural or psychic activity.”
I laughed. “Goodness! You’re talking about Ley Lines.”
“I am indeed.”
“Whatever next? Little green men and poltergeists, no doubt.”
He continued unbowed by my scepticism. “It is an undeniable fact that there are geographical areas from whence originates an abundance of reported hauntings, ghost sightings and yes, my dear Rupert, poltergeists. It is my suspicion that these areas are those where underground river currents, and therefore geopathic electromagnetic vibrations are at their strongest. Furthermore, I believe that the moon exerts a powerful influence over underground water flow, producing a cyclical tidal fluctuation that reaches its peak when the moon displays its fullest countenance. As a result, these geopathic vibrations are enhanced, which is why the full moon appears to exert such a profound effect on the psyche of certain individuals, hence the term lunatic.”
“You are suggesting that lunacy is a result of an increase in these vibrations, rather than direct exposure to the moon itself.”
I nodded my understanding. “Vibrations of the sort that may be detected by a sensitive soul such as Dr. Grove, for example.”
“Precisely, Rupert. And it just so happens that this year’s St Onker’s Dinner and Dance took place on the night of the full moon.”