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Authors: John Luxton

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BOOK: The Alembic Valise
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Ignoring the insects Deacon did as he was told. He remained this way for a long while. His body scorched by the sun but his arm deep in the cool earth.

Chapter 19

Two weeks later Detective Z received a phone call summoning him to Troy Town. The hillside he climbed was thickly wooded but between the bare branches of the trees he could see to the south, reduced to a two dimensional grey patchwork by the fog, the Towers of Croydon and beyond. This had filled Detective Z’s vision as he climbed the uneven grassy slope. But upon reaching the summit he turned and looked back, and above the treetops, the reassuring contours of London’s cityscape, albeit from an unfamiliar perspective, were visible. There was a bench positioned to take in the view and he was tempted to sit down and have a cigarette, it had taken an hour to drive here through the rush hour traffic and he never smoked in the car. But his destination was just a little further and although he was well off his usual West London patch, he had a special reason in being here.

Since the drama on Hammersmith Bridge a fortnight ago much had happened. He and DC Sharma had decided to go public concerning their relationship. Protocols had dictated a swift transfer to another squad for his DC. And now they were planning their future together without the need for any secrecy. Lorna, now captain of the senior lacrosse team, seemed happy for them. She had returned to her studies with a vengeance having announced that she wanted to become a writer. This to Detective Z was a good thing, an appropriate outlet for her energy and imagination.

As the gradient evened out he paused and lit a cigarette, it was his first of the day and tasted particularly good. Maybe, he thought, this is my breakthrough.

Local children, under the auspices of the Troy Town Community Resource Centre, had constructed a twig and stone maze as part of a local history project; Troy Town being a medieval name for a maze or labyrinth. It was based on an ancient seven-ring design and consisted of branches and twigs gathered from the woodland nearby, supplemented with fake rocks donated by a garden centre. And here on this grassy plateau, under the oppressive southeast sky, and positioned in the centre of the simple geometric design was a battered brown suitcase.

A single police officer in motorcycle gear was sitting on one of the fake rocks. He stood up as Detective Z approached.
“Good morning constable. So, what have we got?”
“The caretaker saw it this morning, sir, thought it might be a bomb.”
The detective stepped over the lines of branches until he was in the centre of the maze, then he crouched down.
“Is this the alembic valise?” he murmured quietly to himself.
“What’s that sir?” said the sharp-eared constable.

Detective Z did not reply. Leaning forward he tilted his head to obtain a better view. Clearly legible on a label stuck to the side were the words – Empire Windrush 1948 Cuthbert Mcluhan.

He could hear a dog barking in the woodland below, and then a pair of herons broke from the tree canopy and flew in a straight line westwards. Both he and the constable watched until they were gone.

“Off to find some breakfast,” said the constable, feeling instantly foolish as he did so.

With a slight wince Detective Z stood up and reached into his coat pocket for his phone.

Chapter 20

A few days after the discovery of the suitcase, an article appeared in the mid week edition of the South London News. Joel was sitting on the green bench high above the Thames reading the piece out loud to his friend Dave Trulock. They had taken a walk following a light lunch aboard Joel’s boat and had decided to sit for a few moments and enjoy the view. Every time a bus or truck passed by, Joel had to either pause or risk being drowned out in his oration.

“A mystery benefactor has left a fortune in rare artworks to a project that was in danger of closing through lack of funding. A suitcase discovered in the grounds of a south London Primary school, contained paintings and drawings that will be auctioned at Sotheby’s in order to provide much needed funding to the Kid Action Crisis Centre and Help-Line for abused and neglected children. The treasure trove had been placed at the centre of a maze that local school children had built as part of a history project. The donor, who did not wish to be named, left legal documentation and exact instructions in order to ensure a smooth transfer of ownership of the art treasures. There is however, no explanation for the bizarre method chosen to make the donation, but it is understood that the shy benefactor has now left the UK. The Kid Action Trust is unable to comment due to a confidentiality clause that is attached to the donation.”

It was only a short piece and there was no photo, but it obviously ranked highly in newsworthy quotient because it appeared on the front page. Alongside was the photo of a disgraced publican, and the story of how he had misplaced the profits from a fundraising event in which his regulars had participated.

“You publicans” said Joel. “Do you know this guy?”

“What! You think there is a sort of fraternal brotherhood of dodgy pub landlords whose meetings I attend. Where we eat Thai food and discuss ways of scamming money from the widows and orphans fund.”

“You tell me, brother Trulock, you tell me?”

A jogger with a sprung artificial leg ran past. Moments later a disabled man in an electric wheelchair sped by, heading in the same direction. Neither Dave nor Joel seemed to notice.

Joel was avoiding the subject that was on both their minds, and Dave was willing to play along. But they soon ran out of steam. And instead they say in silence and watched dark clouds massing over to the west. Eventually Dave began to speak.

“You know I flunked out of Cambridge, well thrown out would be more accurate. Then went on the hippy trail, lived in an ashram and all that other stuff?”

“Yes I do, although I never quite understand how you transitioned from that to being a senior partner in one of the biggest advertising agencies in Europe.”

“Yes, miracles can happen,” said Dave smugly. “Anyway during that ‘time of transition’ I found myself back in Bristol and in an attempt to put my supposed empathic insights to a good purpose I decided to become a psychotherapist. In year two of the degree course you have to start seeing clients and here comes the crunch.”

Dave paused to light a cigarette.

“People tell you things that they have never told to a living soul, the pathogenic secrets I was talking about earlier. And in that moment, one to one, two human beings in a room, you become a bearer of that secret too.”

Joel pulled up the collar of his coat then put his hands back in to his pockets; feeling the reassuring presence of his keys and wallet. He could never quite forget about the slots in the benches and the void beneath.

“Well that is it really. Someone told me something and I was supposed to put it in a box marked ‘other people’s shit’ and forget about it, unless I could use it in my dissertation.”

Dave was pinching the bridge of his nose between thumb and forefinger, and went silent for a few moments.

“The only time that it is permissible to break the confidentiality of a client’s admission is if there is somehow the possibility of harm coming to either the client or someone else, violence, suicide, that kind of thing. So when a therapist hears something that could possibly fall into these categories they have to make a judgement call, either to tell their supervisor, or the police, or social services, or not to tell anyone and maintain the client’s confidentiality. The one thing you must never, never ever do is …” he trailed off.

“Take things into your own hands?” said Joel helpfully.

“I used to know Seraphim way back in the days of old, in Bristol. He was a young guy back then, I met him in hospital. I had come back from India with glandular fever, he had been shot and the wound had gone bad. He had been working for the British Army Intelligence in Kosovo. They thought he might lose the leg so they shipped him back to the UK.”

The passing traffic had ground to a halt and a particularly noisy diesel powered truck was idling just a few feet away from their bench. It took several minutes to move off, when it finally did Dave resumed.

“Actually we are both the same age. Anyway I recovered and so did he but we kind of lost touch. I was doing my psychotherapy training and one day I got a call from him asking me for a favour. He said a friend of his was having problems and he was really worried about them. I tried to put him off, told him the person had to call me directly but he insisted.”

“So the next day he turned up at my flat with this girl, his girlfriend he said. Straightaway I knew this would be trouble. For a start she looked underage and secondly I knew her. She was the youngest daughter of the man who controlled the drugs trade in the city. Seraphim had neglected to tell me that he now worked for this man and that his girlfriend was this man’s daughter. He had, however told me that she was self-harming.”

“By ‘this man’ you mean Cuthbert Mcluhan, I take it.”
“Will you shut the fuck up with your interruptions?”
Joel made a conciliatory gesture; showing Dave the palm of his right hand. It seemed to work.

“So while Seraphim went and sat in the kitchen I spoke with her. She was somewhat withdrawn but she told me that since meeting Sera she was getting stronger and had stopped the self-harming. That she was over sixteen and wanted therapeutic help. I explained that if my supervisor approved I could see her. They left and I never saw either of them again until Seraphim turned up at the boathouse.”

“Where’s Seraphim now?” Joel asked.
“He said he was going back to Pristina. I got a text saying that ‘Jesus has left the building’.”
“Wassat?”
“It’s just a joke.”
They fell silent.
“One last thing though?” said Joel.
“Who are you, bloody Colombo?”
“You said that you did the one thing that you should never ever do; take matters into your own hands.”
Dave rolled his eyes.
“I went to see the girl’s mother to get to the bottom of the self harming.”
“I guess you told Detective Z all this.”
“You guess right.”

The rain clouds were getting closer. The leading edges were writhing and morphing as if they had been filmed in time-lapse. Joel had calculated that the weather front would reach them in another five minutes. It would be unwise to be caught in this exposed spot when the storm arrived. But Dave had begun to speak again.

“Do you ever think about the day when you will wake up and drink your coffee, look at the sky, decide what to wear, make plans for the day, all those habitual actions, but it will be your last day on earth?”

“No,” answered Joel, after a moments thought. Dave thumped him on the shoulder.

“Man, I aspire to one day be as shallow as you.”

“Listen,” said Joel. “A young guy, he passes his motorbike test and goes out and buys the fastest, shiniest bike he can afford, on the never-never. Goes for a burn and on the first fast corner, gets his line wrong, loses control, flies into the air, crunch. When the ambulance arrives he is lying next to his crumpled bike in the ditch, groaning. The medic quickly checks him over. The youth looks up into the medic’s eyes and says. “Oh man, am I going to die?”

The medic looks back and says, ‘Yes son, I am afraid you are,’ pausing for a moment before adding, ‘but not today’.”

“I’ve heard it before,” said Dave. Together they stood up and began to walk briskly over the bridge.

Chapter 21

11 Months Later

It had taken twenty-two days, when at the age of six Cuthbert had first sailed to England. The Empire Windrush had had mechanical problems at the start of the voyage, necessitating a lengthy stop over in Bermuda: Eventually completing the journey from the West Indies to Tilbury on a sunny June morning in 1948. On this occasion, almost six decades later, it had taken him just five days to cross the Atlantic.

Cuthbert had boarded the cruise ship at Port Canaveral in Florida using a borrowed identity that would allow him to enter the UK beneath the radar of the authorities: The identity of his half-cousin Radney, who was in fact, safely tucked up in a nursing home outside New Orleans.

He checked his reflection in the stateroom mirror before heading to the ship’s gym for his final morning workout; the ship docked in Southampton tomorrow. Then there were three days of sightseeing and shopping; but Cuthbert had his own agenda. There were several matters of urgency that he needed to expedite, but for now he would lift some weights and use the elliptical trainer. He had no plans to join cousin Radney at the Circle Lakes Nursing Home anytime soon.

Chapter 22

Sophie had decided to wear her blue duffel coat. It made her feel invulnerable and invisible as well as providing warmth; all of which were qualities that were congruent with her intended activities for the evening.

This year Halloween and Guy Fawkes Night had rolled into one another due to the final day of October being on a Monday. So although it was now the following Saturday, as she drove through the inner suburbs of south London towards Troy Town she still saw many examples of monstrous attire.

Where do they find the time? She found herself thinking; parties, costumes, revelry. Then she remembered. Oh yes, of course, I am a workaholic. Most people have time to do this shit, and more besides.

In the past eleven months following her brother’s boathouse incident, it had become increasingly apparent that Dave was no longer motivated to be involved in the running of his business.

Finally he had gone to Burning Man in Arizona, and never returned; was currently participating in some kind of Native Americans initiation ceremony in New Mexico. Sophie laughed out loud; he truly had gone nuts. So she had stepped up. And in fact was enjoying every minute. But apart from two weeks on the most northerly island of the Northern Sporades cluster, in the Aegean, last spring, it had been work, and more work. Tonight’s outing was a bonfire night celebration to mark the relaunch of the newly resourced (and thus saved from the guillotine of Government grant withdrawal) KidzAction Project. She had started the voluntary work there, shortly after splitting up with Joel. It was only a few mornings a month helping the overloaded director of the project with fundraising, but she hoped that it made a difference.

Nobody at the charity knew of her connection with the ‘mystery benefactor’ and she had never revealed to anybody else the nature of her voluntary work; concerned as it was with abuse. It was not a subject that people in general were comfortable with. And although she had a great deal of respect for the counsellors and therapists who worked in this occluded area, she was grateful her involvement was restricted to grant applications and staffing rotas.

She could smell the bonfires now and hear the muted crackle and pop of fireworks detonating as she turned off the main road; quickly changing into first gear to begin her ascent. The road zigzagged through the dense woodland that covered the steep northern slopes of One Tree Hill. Apparently there had been an optical semaphore station sited here once, the last in a chain that reached from Portsmouth to the Admiralty and had carried campaign-winning intelligence during the Napoleonic war.

She drove into the car park. In front of her the school buildings were in darkness but the adjacent community centre where the Project had their office space was brightly lit, and she added her car to the dozen or so vehicles that were clustered around it. Entering and greeting her co-workers, she picked up on the anticipation and excitement that that was building amongst them.

There was a relay line in operation already, carrying the prepared food and drinks down to the bonfire site and she made several trips, chatting with people she knew on the way and feeling the excitement building in her self. Half an hour later the bonfire was alight and the party had begun.

The high point was to be the release of three specially constructed sky lanterns; wire and paper hot air balloons, symbolising the resurrection of the KidzAction Project. Each one inscribed with a precept from their mission statement. Sophie noticed as she made her way around the fire that more people had arrived, some in fancy dress. This was a surprise because the launch party was an in house event for the service providers so was not publicised; there was to be a press launch the following week. Maybe they are gatecrashers she speculated. Reaching the table where the fruit punch was being dispensed she held out her glass for a refill, then turned back towards the fire, edging closer to watch the flickering light and feel the heat on her face.

As the evening progressed three groups had formed; the office staff from the project, the counsellors and therapists, and everyone else. Sophie having spoken with those she knew, she now found herself between groups, on the margin, unsure of what to do next; always alone in a crowd, she thought.

She watched the lanterns being lit. Very slowly they began to inflate, enough time to nip along the path to the centre to use the bathroom, she thought. And still be back before they are launched.

Returning she was disappointed to see the still flaccid lanterns were no longer the centre of attention and that most of the crowd had walked around the plateau to watch a firework display that the council had arranged on the recreation field below. This is a good moment to go and walk the maze, she thought.

The path snaked around the summit, through a small outcrop of woodland, and led to a moonlit clearing. Sophie paused, it’s quite spooky to be here alone, she thought. A ground mist had crept up this side of the hill and was slowly entwining the labyrinthine curves of the twig and stone structure.

Hearing a sound behind her she turned quickly to see a figure emerging from the trees. It was one of the people she had seen earlier wearing fancy dress; a tall guy wearing a suit of black and white squares and a wide brimmed hat shadowing his face. A comic book villain, was her first thought. She turned to face him.

His long arm was held out, his fist clenched upwards. She involuntarily stepped towards him and he slowly uncoiled his fingers as if offering a sweet. Sophie was transfixed. Then he leaned forward and blew gently into the palm of his hand. A thousand particles of glittering dust enveloped her and the world began to spin around her.

Lifted by what felt like a dozen pairs of hands, she opened her eyes and saw a single star and then the tree line rapidly approaching; a moment later she was borne off into the undergrowth.

The sky lanterns climbed higher, then the air currents began to pull them away. And they became just three orange points of light, drifting somewhere, into the secret immensity of the night sky.

BOOK: The Alembic Valise
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