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Buckman searched his pockets for a pinch of tobacco, checked his watch again, shivered. He climbed down from the rust-eaten patrol boat, joints protesting the invading cold, and joined Ashwore on the wharf.
Together, they observed the carcass – flabby, obsidian hulk, glimmering with pollutant, and a pervasive gift for mining ecological guilt from commuters at twenty past eight in the morning as it rested, finally, on the riverbank, ballooning with the gas from organs already liquefying, fissured skin steaming in the fledgling sunlight. Under the shroud of an unnaturally hot metropolitan summer, it would practically slow cook. But the audience of outraged activists and hovering smartphones had retreated months ago, bored, after the seventh or eighth occurrence; today, just a slippery fog in whose damp embrace the city groaned into consciousness, wholly indifferent to the sight of another dead sperm whale on the south bank.
Buckman radioed for the crew. He took a long drag on his soggy rollup, watched fleeting blue lights dance off the fog.
“Didn’t recognise that voice,” he said.
Ashwore straightened up from the whale’s lolling jaw. An anaemic slime webbed the thumb and index finger of his right hand together.
“On the other end of the line,” Buckman said. He flicked the cigarette butt into the fog. “Three minutes left on shift, and now this. Can you believe that?”
Ashwore said nothing.
“What’s that stuff?” Buckman said, nodding at Ashwore’s fingers.
A figure in a yellow raincoat was approaching them across the crumbling wharf. She nearly slipped off her feet when she reached the whale.
“Ashwore?” she said, breathlessly.
“The fuck,” she breathed, checking her notebook. “James Ashwore?”
“Who are you?” said Ashwore.
“L.A.D.O.L.M.,” she replied. “Disposal Coordinator.”
“No, Arthur Daniels is D.C.” Ashwore wiped his fingers on his jeans.
She uncapped a pen, turning to Buckman. “Length?”
“11 metres,” said Buckman.
“Large for a female.”
“It’s a male,” said Ashwore.
“No, it’s a female,” she countered.
Ashwore’s eye twitched.
“What happened to Daniels?” said Buckman.
Snapping nitrile gloves over her hands, she asked, “Have preliminary incisions been made?”
“No,” Buckman told her.
Crouched by the sagging, disjointed mandible, she inserted a finger into one of the fleshy tooth holes and drew out a string of grey sludge.
“We noticed that,” Buckman said. The elasticity of the stuff reminded him, unwelcomely, of cleaning out the drip tray of his fridge the week before.
She took a small glass phial out of her backpack, smeared the pallid mucus inside and dropped it into a serious-looking zip lock bag. Her eyes were also serious, and somehow pitying.
“I hope you didn’t touch this,” she said. “And cancel your crew. You’re no longer needed for this operation.”
The fog dispersed and the tableau of the dead whale took on a new sadness. Buckman tried not to think about it. He was hungry. Ashwore, meanwhile, regarded the new Disposal Coordinator with contempt; she seemed to have forgotten she had met them, pacing the length of the gigantic, pock-marked mammal, diligently notetaking. She slipped and exclaimed, “Whoops-a-daisy!”, then started pushing little green flags into the mud. She had left her bag by the whale’s pectoral fin, unzipped. Beside the zip-lock bag was a copy of Whale Oil in the New World Economy and What It Means, or Can Do, for YOU by Rudyard Glossman, who was featured, grinning, on the cover.
New boats arrived. Clean, aerodynamic boats with purring engines. Men in orange overalls hopped out and wordlessly erected a white tent around the carcass. Ashwore tugged at his beard, agitated.
“Such graceful and powerful creatures, degraded…” Buckman suddenly recalled Ashwore mumbling to him one night at The Windmill in Lambeth, slumped over a Jameson after an arduous day processing dead pilot calves near Westminster Bridge.
Ashwore grunted goodbye to Buckman and chugged irritably away down the river. Buckman clambered up the dilapidated wharf and smoked, watching the operation below. The tent wasn’t big enough to cover the tail. Seagulls, circling above, were already taking an interest.
He walked into the Mayflower on Rotherhithe Street and ordered a pint of Amstel and fish and chips. He watched victims of a slow Monday lunchtime plod by, squinting in the sun while he smoked two more cigarettes in the garden. Inside, he saw a yellow raincoat on the back of a chair, an open laptop on the table in front of it. At least twenty browser tabs were open. “Marguerite Formation – defensive strategy, social ritual, or something more sinister?” read an article from storiesfromthedeep.com. The Cornish Times reported that a cetologist had disappeared from a sperm whale disposal site on East Looe Beach. “Whale oil tycoon Glossman under pressure to justify” –
Buckman sloshed his pint down his shirt.
“Eleanor Cross.” She sat and said, “Sit, if you like.”
“You know he used to be a whaler, don’t you?” Cross said, her eyes incandescent from the laptop screen.
“World famous. Killed nearly 200 whales. Favoured the ‘old methods.’ Row boat and a harpoon. Very kamikaze.”
Buckman could smell chips.
“Anyway … working with someone like that,” Cross shook her head, “with that bloodlust.”
“Don’t think he has that anymore.” Buckman realised he had left his wooden spoon on the bar. “He cares about the work.”
“Hm.” Cross was typing furiously.
Buckman felt nervous. “So…” he began.
Cross told him she studied law at Cambridge, before dropping out to join a shady off-shoot of PETA activists who travelled the globe sabotaging whaling boats. She promptly went to prison in Norway, where her parents bailed her out and sent her back to study political science. She quit that too but landed a job at Logistics and Disposal of Large Mammals before anyone could complain.
“Wow,” said Buckman.
“You have a background in cetology?” Cross poured another glass of wine.
“In what? Oh. No. I used to be a plumber. I just walked in on the right day.” He looked around for his food.
“You’re just here for the clean-up.”
Cross took a gulp of wine and said, “Like… why does the world suddenly have a renewed appetite for whale oil? Last year, the IEA reported a rise in global whale oil consumption from two to 11 percent. It’s comparatively small, obviously – but fucking hell – it’s like we’ve regressed two centuries! And why do whales, particularly sperm, keep swimming hundreds of miles out of their habitats, fucking up freshwater rivers, through the most densely populated cities in the world, to just beach themselves and die?”
Buckman was unsure if he should suggest any answers.
“Those are interesting questions,” he said.
Cross snapped the laptop shut and leaned across the table, glasses askew. Her breath smelled of hot fruit.
“How much do you know about sperm whale anatomy?” she said.
“Do you know what the junk chamber is?”
“The … bit below the spermaceti organ. Right?”
Cross emptied the bottle into her glass, eyes shining.
“Do you know what happened in Portlooe?”
Cross blew out her cheeks; after a moment, she said, “Hungry?”
“I’m waiting for fish and chips.”
She laughed, spraying the table with wine.
Cross ordered another bottle of pinot noir (“It’s supposed to be my day off, by the way.”) and a chicken and leek pie. She finished her food before Buckman and grazed on his overcooked chips while he strongly advised that no, duct tape was not a viable or long term solution for a leaking downpipe. They went to the bathroom at the same time and when they came out, hands still wet from ineffectual hand dryers, Buckman, drunk, leaned in for a kiss, at which Cross giggled and told him to fuck off, but squeezed his wet little finger all the same.
“What does marguerite formation mean?” he whispered into her ear.
They walked down a dark Rotherhithe Street towards the wharf. She kept stealing drags from his cigarette. The tent was now a glowing futuristic pod of mystery, washed clinically clean by temporary floodlights. The tentacles of the Thames lapped jealously nearby as the men in tangerine overalls trudged in and out of the tent. Inside, an angry saw spluttered to life with thrilling menace – as if foreshadowing the gory climax in a slasher film.
Cross gazed across the river. The fog was creeping back – the north bank was nearly consumed. A current seemed to run through her and she turned to Buckman.
“Did you know that, in South America, you can actually hear the trees screaming as they’re being cut down? They’ve been covering it up for years.”
“I like what I do,” Buckman said, “despite everything.”
They stood in silence, listening to the whining saw, which seemed to make the fog itself shiver. When it stopped, Cross blurted out that she needed to keep working and wandered off in search of a bus stop. Buckman, realising he had left his house keys at the office, headed for Canada Water station.
Ashwore’s office had originally been part of L.A.D.O.L.M. headquarters in Battersea, until a structural anomaly – long hidden or (more likely) ignored – resulted in his desk and frail Kentia palm bobbing away under Chelsea Bridge one Thursday afternoon. All other offices in the building, which loomed goadingly over the river, were unaffected. Ashwore, who had been slicing up stranded killer whales in Bell Lane Creek at the time, did not consider himself that lucky not to have been in the office. When Buckman joined the organisation, reporting to a rusty shipping container on a jetty in Putney, Ashwore admitted that the temporary base of operations was, after 14 months, beginning to feel permanent.
Buckman arrived at the jetty to find that the river had receded to gleefully reveal the foreshore: a choked oasis of chopped up bank cards and lumpy wet wipe mutants, primordial, algae-stained Coca-Cola bottles, lost Victorian treasures festooned with fluffy cigarette butts – a single-use cornucopia, immortalised in anaerobic mud. The spindly struts of the jetty, decorated with verdant strings of slime, were visible beneath.
As Buckman approached he heard a desperate voice from inside. He opened the door. A figure stood in the corner, posture contorted, yelling into a phone.
“Legacy? Legacy? What kind of –?” Ashwore’s voice broke, and he hacked out a cough. Liquid slopped to the floor.
Ashwore turned; the movement sounded wet. Droplets clung to his beard and his eyes, crusty around the edges, burned with a difference that made Buckman stiffen. Ashwore limped to the window and said, “We’ve only got one, Buckman,” and jumped through the glass. Buckman winced at the wet thud from below. Ashwore lurched down the muddy shore, wet skin iridescent in the moonlight. One of his hands looked misshapen, puffy, not like a hand at all. He started to laugh.
“Legacy, is it? Legacy! LEGACY?”
Buckman picked up Ashwore’s phone. The screen was pulverized and inky, long dead.
Gulls circled above the wharf, eyeing the exposed tail with innocent, psychotic stares. Cross was talking to one of the men in orange overalls as Buckman approached.
“No sign of parasitic infection at all?” she said.
“None whatsoever –”
“Need to talk to you,” Buckman interrupted.
“You look terrible,” said Cross, “did you sleep?”
“It’s about Ashwore.”
“I probably shouldn’t show you this,” Cross said, snapping her notebook shut. “But it’s quite exciting.”
Buckman followed her inside the tent. Cross faced the swollen carcass, hands on her hips. The walls of the tent were streaked with brownish-pink stains.
Buckman said, “I was wondering why you said you hoped we hadn’t touched that … stuff, because –”
“The man is a fossil,” Cross said, “and not one that anyone wants to find. He should be at the bottom of the ocean.”
Two men stepped back from the whale, breathless, holding a large bloodstained cutting tool. A door of craggy skin, at least a foot thick, fell away from the sperm whale’s head. Viscous grey liquid oozed from the incision.
“Melon,” Cross whispered.
“Sorry?” said Buckman, as one of the men removed his mask.
“That’s what should be in the junk chamber,” said Cross.
“Good lord, it’s true!” said the unmasked man, who Buckman now recognised as none other than Rudyard Glossman – on the south bank of the Thames, in a tent. Glossman flicked on a torch and shone it through the chasm in the whale’s head. “Completely empty,” he exclaimed.
Cross clapped her hands together and said, “Looks like we have another Portlooe on our hands.”
Glossman removed his overalls, revealing a sharp pinstripe suit underneath. He smoothed down his flowing, silvery locks and checked his reflection in the large sawblade in the corner.
“Ms. Cross, I can’t thank you enough for this opportunity,” he said.
“My pleasure, Mr Glossman,” said Cross.
“Shall we proceed?”
“Please, after you.”
With a copy of his book under one arm, Glossman climbed inside the head of the sperm whale. He shone his torch left and right, exclaiming, “Fascinating!” over and over. Delighted, he moved further inside, until Buckman could no longer see him at all. The torchlight began to stutter, as if the battery was dying.
Then Glossman’s giddy remarks ceased. The torchlight and his squelching footsteps vanished entirely.
Buckman listened. A nauseous feeling began to seethe in his chest. Outside the gulls cawed impatiently.
After a few moments of thick, humming silence inside the tent, Cross said to the remaining man, “Let’s get this girl sewn up. Quickly.”
Outside the other workmen were yelling things about a trolley and a defibrillator, or refrigerator. Buckman wasn’t sure. He was having trouble rolling a cigarette. Tobacco crumbled from his trembling fingers. Cross patted his arm and watched the gulls. She told him Ashwore would be perfect for this. Buckman didn’t know what that meant. Think of it like a transaction, she reassured him, as he finally lit his cigarette, coughing, staring at the mesh of propeller scars on the sperm whale’s tail. “A give-take scenario,” Cross went on comfortingly. “Mostly we take, but sometimes, Buckman, we have to give.”