THE HUMMINGBIRD’S WRISTWATCH
Wednesday the 25th
I rose bright and early on Wednesday morning, and was delighted to find that Mrs Denford had prepared a full English. Urban-Smith was already at the kitchen table, browsing the internet on his laptop.
“Good morning, Fairfax. What are you doing?”
“Morning, Rupert,” he replied without looking up. “I am searching for poisons that can induce a stroke.”
“Not really. There are plenty of poisons that can mimic the symptoms of a stroke, but none that can actually cause one, other than rat poison of course, and I should think that would be easily detectable.”
“Are you still entertaining the possibility that Professor Gorshkov did not die from natural causes?”
“Not really. I was merely indulging my curiosity.”
We demolished breakfast, then parted company. I showered and dressed, before braving the London drizzle and walking the mile and a half to St Clifford’s.
I spent the morning examining the body of a clarinetist who had succumbed to asphyxiation when her asthma inhaler became lodged in her windpipe, and I only barely resisted mortuary assistant Danny’s suggestion that I should record the cause of death as, 1a irony.
In the afternoon, I was acting as expert witness at Crown Court, arguing with the defendant’s solicitor that the deceased’s eczema had not contributed to her death as strongly as had her strangulation by the defendant.
I arrived back at number sixteen Chuffnell Mews a little before five to find Urban-Smith at the kitchen table, fiddling with his laptop computer and a black plastic speaker unit, bearing the words, SubGrumble 50 Subwoofer System. He startled as I pulled out a chair from the table to sit down.
“Rupert! I did not hear you approach. You are like an urban ninja homunculus.”
“Thank you….. I think. What are you playing with?”
“This?” He motioned with his hand. “This is a modified subwoofer, capable of producing vibrations down to five hertz. It is very similar to that removed from Professor Gorshkov’s laboratory. I have been using it to determine a person’s psychic sensitivity. Would you care for a demonstration?”
“Yes, please.” At this moment, Mrs Denford entered the kitchen in order to start preparing tonight’s supper. She spied Urban-Smith’s SubGrumble 50, and grimaced.
“Yuck! Please tell me that you’re not going to use that horrible contraption.”
“Indeed we are, Mrs Denford. You may wish to retreat to your room for a few minutes. I recall that you were rather sensitive to the vibrations.”
“You want to be careful with that, Doctor,” she cautioned. “It made my unmentionables jitter like a hummingbird’s wristwatch.” With a surprising turn of speed for a lady of her vintage, she was away up the stairs like a whippet with a sausage.
Urban-Smith cleared his throat to recapture my attention. “Shall we proceed?”
“What does this demonstration involve, Fairfax?”
“I’m going to play a sequence of infrasonic pulses, each of fifteen second duration, and I would be grateful if you would relay to me your impressions. We will start at sixteen and a half hertz, and increase in increments of a quarter hertz up to nineteen and a half.”
“So, you’re going to subject me to three minutes of jittering unmentionables?”
“With the amount of time you spend at your club, I should think you are well accustomed to jittering unmentionables, Rupert. Let us embark.”
He clicked a folder on his computer desktop labelled infrasound, and selected a file named crescendo 120. He right-clicked on the file and selected open with Wavebreaker. On the computer screen, there appeared a digital simulation of an oscilloscope. The readout stated 16.5 hertz, and a timer began counting down from 15 seconds. At the end of the fifteen seconds, the readout changed from 16.5 hertz to 16.75 hertz, and the countdown resumed. Urban-Smith was watching me with keen interest as the frequency rose to 17.0 hertz.
I became aware of a slight discomfort behind my eyes, and I felt my heart speed up and my mouth became dry. As the wavelength increased to 17.25 hertz, the feeling intensified, and I was seized with an extraordinary premonition of impending doom.
“Good God!” I exclaimed, gripping the table tightly.
“You feel it, Rupert?”
“It’s awful.” The wavelength changed to 17.5 and the feeling continued to grow. I saw Urban-Smith grimace, and knew that he was similarly afflicted.
“Keep with it, Rupert; it will soon pass,” he hissed through gritted teeth.
The wavelength climbed again to 17.75, and mercifully, the feeling abated very slightly. As the wavelength increased again, the nausea and dread reduced, and by 18.25 hertz I felt calm again.
The figure on the screen rose to 18.5, then 18.75 hertz. As the frequency reached 19.0, something extraordinary happened. Behind Urban-Smith’s head there rose a hazy black figure, swaying back and forth like a drunkard. I blinked to clear my vision, which had become hazy, but the figure remained, its shape ebbing and flowing like a humanoid jellyfish. I pushed my chair backwards slowly, my eyes locked upon the spectral apparition.
“There’s something behind you, Fairfax.”
“As indeed there is behind you, Rupert.” I whisked around, but there was nothing behind me, and when I turned back again, the shadowy figure was nowhere to be seen. The frequency had by this time risen to 19.25, and finally to 19.5. I breathed a sigh of relief.
“So,” asked Urban-Smith with a grin, “what do you say?”
“I say that I have just seen a ghost.”
“Ha!” He clapped his hands. “Isn’t it extraordinary?”
“That would be one word for it. What exactly happened?”
“I have exposed you to different frequencies of infrasound at an intensity of one hundred and twenty decibels, in order to demonstrate the effects. At around seventeen and a half hertz, there are often feelings of nausea and trepidation. Nineteen hertz is the resonant frequency of the human eyeball, and at this wavelength visual disturbance is reported, often described as a ghostly apparition. For the majority of people, the threshold for detecting these frequencies is around seventy decibels, but some people experience effects at levels as low as twenty decibels.”
“People such as Dr. Grove.”
“Exactly. A few years ago, I had an experiment published in the British Journal of Parapsychology. I placed an advert in several paranormal journals, asking for subjects who claimed to possess psychic abilities. Those who responded to the advert were placed into a double blind placebo controlled trial, where they were asked to listen to a piece of music and identify any musical passages or phrases that seemed to affect them emotionally. Half of the subjects were played music interspersed with low amplitude oscillating frequencies in the seventeen to nineteen hertz range, and the other half, just the untainted music. The proportion of those who were able to consistently identify the hidden signals was forty four percent in the allegedly psychic group, but only eight percent in the control group. This gave a p value of less than 0.05.”
I was very impressed, though a little sceptical. “Your results are obviously statistically significant, but what conclusions can you draw from that?”
He scratched his nose thoughtfully. “I have been cautious about how to interpret these results. Clearly there is a minority of the population with an enhanced sensitivity to these vibrations, and this is self-interpreted as psychic ability, such as clairvoyance, mediumship and aura reading. As to whether these vibrations are a manifestation of paranormal phenomena, or are mistaken for such remains a contentious issue.”
There came a knock upon the front door. Mrs Denford had retreated to a safe distance along with her unmentionables, so I trickled through to the hall to admit our visitor.
“Good evening, Dr. Harker. Is Mr Urban-Smith at home?”
“Come in, dear fellow, come in,” thundered Urban-Smith from the kitchen. “How are you, Dr. Grove?”
“Very well, thank you.” Urban-Smith indicated and Dr. Grove took a seat at the table, eyeing the SubGrumble 50 with curiosity. In Mrs Denford’s absence, Urban-Smith volunteered me to make tea, while he introduced our guest to his infrasonic apparatus. Dr. Grove was exposed to the delights of crescendo 50, which was the same as crescendo 120, but at a level of only fifty decibels. I was unable to detect anything as the wavelength crept from 16.5 up to 19.5, but Dr. Grove grimaced and shuddered like a bulldog chewing a lemon, and Urban-Smith and I were both convinced of his sensitive disposition.
As expected, Dr. Grove found the experience gruelling, and had to be resuscitated with tea and biscuits. Once recombobulated, he listened intently as I explained the late Professor’s autopsy findings, along with an explanation of coning and fou rir prodromique. He looked to Urban-Smith for confirmation.
“Do you agree with Dr. Harker that Trofim’s death was due to natural cause, and that there was no malign intention behind it?”
“Yes, Dr. Grove. I agree.”
Dr. Grove sagged visibly with relief. “Thank the Gods. I am so grateful that this agony of uncertainty is at an end, and the matter resolved.”
Sadly, dis aliter visam,* as my mother would say.
(*the Gods had deemed otherwise)