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Authors: John Luxton

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BOOK: The Alembic Valise
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Joel thought for a moment before replying. “All the elements of the book were turned into symbols when the game developers became involved, and this is one of them.”

There were actually twin turtles in Joel’s story, Map Turtle (Graptemys Geographica) and the False Map Turtle (Graptemys Pseudogeographica), the names coming from the markings on their shells. One or other appeared at opportune moments in the dreams of the book’s hero to give guidance, or misguidance.

“Got it,” said the detective. “So for me the really interesting thing, and something I would appreciate your help understanding is - why has our corpse got a tattoo of this tortoise on his arm?”

“Turtle,” said Joel, the hollow feeling returning to his chest.

He paused and drank some of his tea, then explained that the synergy between the book and the game meant that readers of the book went on to play the game and vice versa, resulting in thousands of game players interacting online with one another. There were also spin-off products – including posters, tee shirts and jewellery. Joel was uncertain if there was even such a thing as tattoo templates but supplied the appropriate contact details.

Afterwards the detective thanked him for signing the book and then went ashore. To continue attempting to identify the mud guy, Joel supposed. It seemed strangely coincidental to him that a hardcore gamer with a tattoo of one of his most paradoxical creations should meet his end so close to his boat. The twin turtles were identical, so there was no clear way to know if their advice was wisdom or folly. It was intended to be humorous but also to illustrate the more serious idea that in the end you could only ever trust your own judgement. Had mud guy been led astray by his own tattoo? Joel’s uneasiness began to escalate into dark foreboding. He went inside to retrieve his coat, set the alarm, locked up and then walked briskly along the jetty to the embankment.

Now that he did not have to go to the police station and being in no mood to work he was at a loose end. Heading away from the river he crossed the park, the hum of the traffic increasing with each step. In the sunken flower garden some men, ragged and red faced, were drinking from cans and passing round a bottle in a brown paper bag. The grass around the benches they sat on was covered with drifts of leaves the autumn wind had scoured from the surrounding trees and driven to the lowest point in the park, creating the effect of a comfortable nest.

One man in a long overcoat detached himself from the group and began walking along the path towards him. Half expecting to be asked for money Joel quickened his pace. But as they drew level to one another he saw that the man was looking straight ahead and his whole body seemed to be angled forward, as if he were leaning into an invisible hurricane. Joel left the park and descended into the underpass.

Chapter 3

Joel’s mood was no better as the evening approached. Walking along the embankment, heading west he had to twice wait for returning rowing crews to carry their fragile looking craft across the road. This part of the river always puzzled him; the houses were picturesque and had fabulous river views and yet mostly seemed to be deserted. Here the spring tides regularly flooded the lowlying roads adjacent to the river. Many of the houses had either raised entrances or some kind of flood defence system in place. Often unsuspecting visitors to the area returned to their parked cars to find them full of water.

Cutting down an alley Joel found himself at his destination, the Gate, an old riverside pub. Entering, he approached the bar and ordered a pint of lager with a whisky shot, which he then took out onto the terrace, just in time to see the sun dipping down behind the old brewery upstream.

He swatted away a mosquito and murmured the refrain – Jesus T F Christ – to himself, partially initialised to avoid offending those within earshot. If anyone had asked what it meant he would have suggested that they should Google it. He threw the scotch down his throat, took a swig of beer and sighed deeply. Looking up he was confronted with the quizzical face of his friend Dave Trulock, proprietor of the Gate, and previous owner of the boat that was now Joel’s home.

“Well, it has been a strange day,” said Joel by way of explanation.

“How so, old friend?” returned Dave in a voice redolent with fake sincerity.

“You heard about the body on the foreshore?” Dave nodded. “Well I probably jogged past it this morning; which gave the police one reason to want to talk to me. Then they caught me rubbernecking at their incident scene and that gave them another.”

He told him all that had occurred, except the part about the tattoo. Dave nodded sagely throughout the tale. The sky was now a deep red colour and some geese flew over the river heading towards the nature reserve. Dave took a final puff on his cigarette and flicked it over the rail. It left a trail of sparks as it arced downwards. The Gate was famous for it’s extensive collection of single malts, so as the breeze had now turned bitterly cold they retreated to the saloon bar where an open fire was burning, and got with the programme.

When they first met several years earlier Dave had just bought the Gate and was renovating the then derelict pub whilst living nearby on his houseboat. When the rebuild was completed Dave moved into the apartment on the top floor and Joel bought the houseboat from him, renaming it Alembic Valise. Dave now looked across the table at him.

“Is this detective’s daughter really a fan of yours? Or is it a ruse to get a sample of your handwriting?” Joel looked confused. “You know, to compare with the fake suicide note they found on the body,” said Dave with a grin.

“Let’s talk about something else”, replied Joel.

“Well”, said Dave, “Those two at the bar look like they have been stood up. Let’s see if you have still got it.” Joel turned to discretely look and saw the two women. One was a red haired woman who Joel immediately recognised. She was a locum at the doctor’s surgery in Fulham where he was a patient. She had prescribed a steroid cream for his eczema a while ago. He tried to remember her name.

“Women don’t get stood up anymore. They hunt in packs,” said Joel. “Besides, they probably bat for the other side or …” he trailed off, realising he was dangerously close to a ‘women are the enemy’ rant.

“Let’s ask them if they want to come and sit by the fire, anyway,” suggested Dave.

“You get the redhead. That woman knows my medical history,” said Joel grumpily.

After introductions and some small talk and then another round of drinks Dave insisted on taking Siobhan, who did not seem to remember Joel or his skin condition, for a tour of the historic pub, whilst her friend stayed with Joel.

The passing moments took on a dreamlike quality. In the flickering firelight his companion seemed a vision of angelic perfection. She was Asian, with high cheekbones and the blackest hair. Was a musician and lived in Paris. She was also very attractive and Joel could not recall how to act in a situation such as this, so he fell silent. The day that had started so unexpectedly badly now seemed have delivered up it’s inverse. Perhaps it is all from the same vortex of possibility he thought. At least I know I am alive. Realising he was drifting into his inner world, he caught himself, looked across at Mai, and smiled.

“I’m hungry,” she said.

Fifteen minutes later Mai and Joel were in a mini cab, speeding along the Great Western Road. Dave and Siobhan had not reappeared leading Joel to suspect that the tour of the Gate had culminated in the great view of the Thames from Dave’s bedroom. They were both hungry by now so the cab dropped them off outside a Persian restaurant that Joel knew. Unfortunately it was only providing take-away service because of renovation work but the chef cooked them lamb kebabs wrapped in freshly cooked unleavened bread. They walked along eating the hot food then went into a café where they washed their greasy hands and then sat drinking tea.

“So you are in the entertainment industry too?” Joel ventured with mock seriousness.
“Yes, without my fans I am nothing,” replied Mai continuing the theme.
“No really, tell me what you do, Mai?”

“Well, I play an obscure instrument called the Ondes Martenot, the earliest of electronic instruments, invented in 1928. It uses old technology, vacuum tubes, and the sound is treated by a variety of electro-mechanical modified speakers. Avant-garde composers have written numerous pieces for it over the years and it has been employed on many movie sound tracks. They are still being built in France and I studied the playing techniques when I was a music student in Paris. And I subsequently made it my main instrument. Now I am touring your lovely country with a small ensemble of musicians playing my own composition as the soundtrack to the German Expressionist film Asphalt. This was made the very same year that the instrument that I play was invented. Ta da!”

“Wow! I can tell you write your own press releases and yes I am familiar with the old Martenot. Bit like a Theramin with a keyboard and a slider thingy?”

“Yes, that’s right. I’m impressed,” said Mai.
“And are you performing in London?”
“Yes, in two weeks time at the South Bank. It’s the final night of our tour, and guess what?”
“What?” said Joel.
“You are going to be on the guest list.”
“I’m already a fan.”
Chapter 4

Dave and Siobhan were not, as Joel had imagined, in the bedroom. They were in fact on the roof terrace of the Gate. It was a modest area. There were two benches positioned to take in the sweeping views of the river and beyond. There was a full moon and the sky revealed no stars. Dave had pulled cushions from a locker and they sat drinking from a bottle of vintage brandy and smoking. The white steam of their breath merged with the cigarette smoke and rose above their heads before the breeze carried it out into the darkness above the river.

“My sister, who is a bit of an historian, believes that there has been an inn here for the best part of a thousand years,” said Dave reflectively.

“Yeah, yeah,” replied Siobhan. “And the health centre where I work used to be a leech pit”

“Ok then,” he said passing the brandy bottle. “Screw history.” Getting no response he then said in a serious voice, “actually, it’s a terrible waste to drink this stuff from the bottle. Let me get some glasses.”

“No, come over here and keep me warm instead.” Dave complied. They kissed. He bit her ear lobe a little too hard. She pushed him away and raised her index finger, moving it from side to side whilst shaking her head.

“I noticed there are moorings below. Do you have a boat?” asked Siobhan in a conversational manner.

Dave took a drink of brandy before answering. “No. The ones passing on the river all look rather like floating caravans. Not quite the thing. Maybe something ocean-going could be fun. But the saying is - to get the real feeling of what owning a boat is all about you must stand in the shower, fully clothed tearing up fifty pound notes’.”

Siobhan laughed. “I thought the saying was – if it flies, floats or fucks, then rent it.”
“Yes I have heard that too,” said Dave. “But it seemed unwise to share that thought at such a moment as this.”
“And what kind of moment may that be?”
“One where I am keen to show my empathic caring side,” replied Dave
“Omygod, a new man, and I had you pegged as an alpha male.”
“I can do that too,” said Dave.

“In that case let’s go inside where I can check out your silverback.” They tumbled onto the bed in an embrace and then began to slowly to undress one another.

Later as Dave was straddling her, working his way between her white breasts and occasionally reaching back a hand to apply gentle frottage to her vulva, they both heard a distant bell ringing.

“Must be closing time,” sighed Dave.

“Hey!” exclaimed Siobhan. “What about Mai? I forgot all about her. I hope she is okay with your friend. He’s a nice guy isn’t he?”

“She will be fine. Joel is a lovely guy.”
“So how do you know him?”
“He bought my boat.” Dave’s body was now shuddering with each stroke.
“You said you never had a boat. What other lies have you told me?” she said indignantly.

“Ferchrissake!” Dave groaned. Siobhan was wearing plum coloured lipstick. It matched her complexion perfectly. Smiling she guided him towards her mouth.

“Jesus titty-fucking Christ!” he ejaculated.

Chapter 5

Although it was not particularly late Joel was tired. He had sobered up thanks to the food and the tea but he was in a kind of daze. As they walked they talked and Mai slipped her arm through his. He told her about the earlier events of the day and soon they found themselves standing on the Bridge where he pointed out his home. The white tent that had been on the foreshore that morning was now gone. When he told her about it she said nothing, just looked at him intently. He also told her about the tattoo of the Map Turtle on the body and her eyes widened but she again said nothing. The full moon had risen and they stood looking at one another, not the view or the moon. He had the sensation that he was standing very close to the edge of a precipice. This was in addition to the fact they were standing in the centre of a suspension bridge. Double jeopardy, thought Joel.

Mai’s phone rang. It was Siobhan apologising for her disappearance. After the appropriate reassurances Mai put her phone back into the pocket of her coat and turned her divine face back towards him. Her black hair was tied back and there was a tiny mole on her throat.

“Listen,” she said. Then she leaned forward and kissed him gently on the lips. Time passed.

“I have to rehearse early in the morning so I can’t come to your boat tonight. I have to get back to Chelsea, it’s a drag I know,” she whispered.

Joel felt a mixture of disappointment and relief.

“Sure. Let’s get you a cab,” he managed to croak.

BOOK: The Alembic Valise
5.41Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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