Authors: John Luxton
|The Alembic Valise|
|John Luxton (2011)|
Fantasy writer Joel Barlow is jolted from his Thames-side idyll when a corpse is found on the rivers edge, close to his houseboat. This tragedy triggers a descent into a world of psychotic gamers and sinister cults, unfolding across the bleak cityscape of London's streets and waterways.
Slowly his life begins to unravel - but he is not alone - those around him are struggling with legacies of thwarted redemption, karmic dissonance and plain old 'bad stuff' too. Only Lorna Z - the teenage daughter of the detective investigating him - seems able to make sense of events. Gradually Joel begins to see that it is possible to find help in unexpected places and so begins an alchemic journey back from the nightside.
Sometimes an idea can take flight and change the world. To distil and deliver that idea can take a lifetime, or a moment.
The Alembic Valise
By John Luxton
Copyright: John Luxton 2011 - All Rights Reserved
This book is a work of fiction and the characters therein are fictional creations and not based in any way upon real people, living or dead, any resemblance is purely coincidental. This book contains adult content.
The 3 books consisting The Hammersmith Trilogy may be read in any order – they are stand-alone stories that are set in the locale of Hammersmith, West London, with some characters in common.
Leave us you thing of bane. Serpent, we trample upon thy head.”
St. Seraphim of Sarov
Joel loved the crunch of the frost under his running shoes as he began his morning run; concentrating on the first strides, feeling the cold air flowing into his lungs, loosening the shoulders and then raising his eyes from the towpath to see Hammersmith Bridge spanning the misty river. This was his routine now, ever since he fetched up here, and in his therapist’s words, gifted himself this new life. Began to drag his sorry self from a slough of misery and self-pity, was more the way he saw it. But he let it go; anyway, running helped.
Other runners were already out, but Joel ignored them; jealously ring-fencing that fertile dimension between sleep and waking, where the fading tendrils of dreams still held sway. Meanwhile out on the river there was worse; rowing crews, their coaches yelling unintelligible instructions through miniature loud hailers; the urgency and shrillness of their voices piercing his mood and precipitating him reluctantly into the bleak, breaking dawn.
After crossing the bridge Joel descended onto the southern riverbank where after lengthening his stride, he settled into a steady rhythm. Here the recent high tide had left some parts of the pathway muddy and whilst avoiding the worst he glanced across the river to where his houseboat was moored. Over the past two years he had adapted to river dwelling, and found comfort and inspiration in equal measure. The rhythm of the tides, the wide expanse of ever changing sky, being in the centre of the city and yet close to nature, the list of positives was extensive.
Twenty-five minutes later his fatigue was tangible but not uncomfortable as the endorphins scrubbed away the pain and lifted his mood. The tide had turned, the sun would soon rise, he was feeling good and looking forward to a leisurely breakfast. But as he reached the floating jetty where his boat was moored he saw a flashing light up ahead. Curiosity overcame exhaustion, and Joel paused on the first of the floodwall steps, noticing now that there was more than one emergency vehicle on the scene, their blue lights diluted by the rays of the now risen sun.
The bridge underpass had been closed and two police officers were standing behind yellow cordon tape, but Joel could see that traffic was still crossing the bridge so he began to jog up the side street to loop around and look down on the incident area from above. As the police car and an ambulance were right under the bridge nothing could be seen from the parapet, so Joel trotted out over the river to where benches were built into the bridges structure. He had sat here many times to admire the views and knew that one could look down through a slot beneath to the river below; a curious design he had always thought, imagining keys, wallet or phone slipping from a hand or pocket into the swiftly flowing water.
By actually laying down under the green wooden seats, he was able to look down through the opening and see… exactly nothing. Oh well, he thought and stood up to retrace his steps back to his boat and that overdue breakfast. Momentarily dizzy from his exertions he reached out to steady himself on the handrail rail and saw in the road beside him a police car. The window was being wound down and the man in the passenger seat was pointing at him.
“Excuse me, sir. Could you follow me, please?” It was not a question but a command. The car moved off slowly and Joel followed.
On reaching the turning that took traffic down to the riverfront Joel saw his captor standing on the pavement smoking a cigarette and talking on a phone. He looked Joel up and down.
"May I ask what you were doing, back there on the bridge?”
“Just curious as to what’s going on, I was out for a run and I live just along from here, what is going on?” Joel answered, trying but failing to sound bright and breezy.
The detective pulled out a wallet and flashed his ID.
“Do you know we video onlookers at incident scenes these days?” he said. “Fires, murders, missing kids, that kind of thing; occasions where a perpetrator may wish to return in order to admire the impact of their actions.” He seemed to study Joel closely for a moment.
“Your name please?”
“But I haven’t seen anything,” said Joel in what sounded like a whiney voice.
Whilst standing on the kerb giving his explanation to the detective Joel began to feel himself sinking into a junior shame spiral, his fragile confidence unravelling in the presence of authority. The exchange ended with the detective handing him a card and telling him to attend Shepherds Bush Police Station before midday, for further questioning. The detective then turned on his heel and walked down the stone steps leading to the underpass. Joel was about to head back to his boat, necessitating the detour to avoid the police cordon, but instead he too did an about-turn, deciding to go to the Café Valdez on the other side of the river. There he knew he would find good coffee and the morning’s newspapers. It seemed a better option than going home and starting to cook for himself. As he began to walk he noticed that the aperture under the bench that he had earlier peered through, was in fact replicated at the beginning of the bridge.
He could have kept his gaze on the sky or even on the river curving away above the wooden handrail. He could have easily resisted the impulse to take a downward glance as he passed the opening but his curiosity won out and he paused and looked down. On the foreshore there were three men wearing oilskins and waders struggling to lay planking across the greenish mud. There was also a small white tent sitting on a patch of shingle across from them. He could not help wondering what or who was in the tent.
Meanwhile the city was coming alive; planes passed overhead and commuter traffic nervously jockeyed for road space. Sunlight had burnt away the morning fog. And yet there was darkness. It was just a step away.
With a shudder he thought of the detective’s observation about perp onlookers at such scenes. He already knew that the police routinely and surreptitiously filmed the rubbernecking crowd, so to have been caught crawling around under a bench by an investigating officer was not good. Surely, he thought, I am guilty of an abhorrent display of voyeuristic curiosity, at the very least. With these dark thoughts he continued over the bridge towards the coffee shop and did not once turn and look back.
A 419 metro bus sped Joel back over the river after a sombre breakfast. Once aboard his boat he shaved, showered and checked his email. Forty minutes later, stepping out onto the gangplank and flicking down his shades he saw the detective advancing towards him, an implausibly amiable smile now stuck on his face. Behind his shades Joel rolled his eyes.
“Ah Mr Barlow, the modern publishing sensation, I believe.” In his left hand the transformed detective was holding a book, Joel’s book. “I sent my DC to buy a copy. My daughter is a big fan of yours. I thought that maybe you could sign it for her.”
He suddenly realised that the detective trusted him to turn up at the police station because he recognised him. There had been profiles in several of the Sunday magazines recently, complete with pictures of him aboard his houseboat, the Alembic Valise. The same words were etched in green on the cover of the book the detective was holding.
“I was just heading up to make my statement”, said Joel to the now beaming visitor.
“Not necessary now I am here. May I come aboard?”
A strong wind was now pushing the incoming tide and the boat, was free of the mud and moving slightly on her moorings as Joel crossed the sun deck and unlocked the door leading to the galley. Quickly punching in the security code he stood aside to let his visitor in. The dining area was spick and span, just his laptop and a folder of design ideas for a new book cover that his publisher had couriered over to him were on the table.
“Tea?” said Joel. The detective nodded, sat down and looked around the cabin.
“Actually Mr Barlow there is a serious side to my visit.” That got Joel’s attention. The detective’s piercing blue eyes had finished their sweep of the cabin and were now back on him. “We think the deceased…”
“The deceased?” Joel interrupted.
“Yes, we found a body on the foreshore this morning.”
“OK, but what has this to do with me?”
“It, the body, was found on the foreshore, shortly after low tide.”
Joel’s mind was in overdrive. The foreshore was uncovered for about two hours on either side of low tide. Was the body already there when he started his run all those hours ago?
“Anyway we are of course interviewing people living alongside the river or indeed on it as you do.” Joel tried to smile accommodatingly but he was pretty sure it was more of a grimace. “Anyway let’s have that cup of tea, then I have something to show you,” said the Detective.
Joel poured the water into two white mugs then watched as his guest took a phone out and began expertly flicking through menus using the touch screen. He looked up and caught Joel’s eye.
“My daughter, she insisted I get this when I last upgraded. Ah! Here we are, now this is what I wanted to show you. Recognise it?” For the second time of the day Joel felt momentarily dizzy. As he looked from the phone screen to the man holding it he could hear the low thrum from the engines of a boat passing by, probably a dredger, but he did not look out of the window. Instead he met the eyes of the detective before replying.
“So your first question was going to be – did I see anyone being murdered when I was out on my run this morning? But somehow we got sidetracked on that and now you want to know about Map Turtle?” said Joel, the cadence of his voice rising.
“Exactly right, no sugar for me thanks,” said the detective, ignoring Joel’s attempt at sarcasm and replacing his phone in his pocket. “And please do not say the word murder. You writers! I suppose an overactive imagination is a professional necessity but look, there are between eighty to hundred bodies in the Thames every year and eighty percent of those are suicides.”
The detective pushed the book across the table, and began to pat his pockets in search of a pen, but Joel already had one in his hand. Opening the cover he wrote and then passed it back to the detective.
“So to get back to this tortoise, is it from your book?” asked the detective whilst carefully putting the freshly signed copy of Joel’s bestseller into a plastic bag that he had taken from his pocket.