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Saturday, 25 August 2007
The Curious Satchel

Collaboration with David Mathew & MF Korn 

Goddamn it if I don’t have the worst luck!



     This was how Tom was now complaining inside his head – where the words echoed like steel drums.



And what’s the time anyway?



The ultimatum was what broke the marriage.  His wife’s voice rang in his ear: ‘I’m leaving you!’



Seconds earlier: ‘Choose, Charlene. Him or me.’



     In his hours of scalpel-sharp post-relationship analysis (or what passed for the same, when aided by a bottle of something cold but warming), Tom Warple would nail it all down, with a self-righteous slap on the desk-top, to the time that Charlene had insisted he made a choice. She had wanted him to choose between his family and his work – which was impossible. Tom had known at that moment that the cracks had deepened; the fractures that the union had taken along the way were beyond repair. An ultimatum leading to another…



Tom had the receiver in his hand. ‘1:Home.’ He was calling to talk to Charlene, and something felt unusual. Tom was disturbed by the fact that he had grown up so much in the week they’d spent apart that he was now ready to call her while sober. Maybe this was because he’d had a remarkable day. Remarkably bad, that was – as if a day involving an abandoned, greasy green sludge of space trash could ever be regarded as good – and yet he hadn’t touched the pint of Old Grandad that he always bought in the morning, with his cigarettes and the sandwich for lunch. As usual, he had left the booze to chill by stabbing a hole in the top of the water barrel and dropping it in. It was five p.m. And Tom felt good. Tired; but good. Although he’d once quipped to a friend that being a self-employed detective was great because alcoholism was tax-deductible, he was enjoying being on the straight and narrow. Let’s see how I feel afterwards, he thought with unanticipated alkalinity.



The phone rang. And rang.



‘Jesus wept,’ Tom said. ‘Pick up the phone, Charlene!’



A man called Eisenson must have been cursing in a similar fashion at nine-thirty that morning – if university science professors actually swore.



     Tom was on the commode. As quickly as he could, he had made it to the drilling trill; said his name…



     ‘This is Dr Eisenson,’ the caller had said. ‘You did some work for me last year? My wife was involved in an affair?’



     ‘I remember you, Dr Eisenson,’ said Tom. ‘How’d it work out?’



     ‘We decided to patch it up,’ the other man answered. ‘Perhaps she was right – I wasn’t paying her enough attention: immersed in my work…’



     Don’t want to hear this, thought Tom. He had spent his time on the can by conducting a gamble. He wanted to know which of his friends would side with Charlene and which with him. There were negatives in both camps. Everyone knew that Charlene had had a string of affairs; but then, everyone knew that Tom drank and considered a good morning to his kids every day the extent of his parental duties.



     ‘What can I do for you, Dr Eisenson?’ asked Tom. He made it a point never to forget when a qualification had altered a Mister into something else. ‘How’s the world of E equals MC squared?’



     ‘I have something I’ll pay for you to look after,’ said Eisenson.



     ‘And what’s that?’       



‘A briefcase.’



     Don’t waste my time, Mister Einstein. ‘And what’s in it?’



     ‘I’m afraid that will have to remain a secret.’



     ‘Sure. But secrets cost extra, Doc. And prompt further questions.’



     ‘Such as?’



     ‘Such as: is this secret something that I’m gonna get my door kicked down for?’



     ‘Unlikely. Next.’



     ‘Gold? Cash? Diamonds?’



     Eisenson chuckled. ‘With respect, Mr Warple, I’m a university scientist. I don’t live in a Five and Dime novel and I’m not a crook. I’m asking you for a simple favour, for which I’ll pay your going rate.’



     ‘For how long?’ Tom asked.



     ‘Twenty-four hours.’



     Tom didn’t particularly need the work. ‘A grand,’ he gambled.



     ‘A university check will suffice, I take it?’



     ‘It’ll do,’ said Tom, astonished and cross with himself. If he’d known that the bill was on the college, he would have doubled the amount.






…the worst luck!



Tom was still complaining inside his head – his skull was echoing the words as surely as a chant in an Egyptian tomb.



…time anyway?



But he knew that in a stupid coincidence both his watch and the office clock had stopped working a few hours earlier. And the building was too quiet to provide clues.



     The telephone rang on. There was no point in not holding, he’d convinced himself.



     But where was everybody? The little cinema inside Tom Walpole’s head was able to concoct any number of dramas: the natural consequence of an adult lifetime in the detection business. Charlene – her small frame almost smothered by the wide, hair-laden shoulders of a mystery man; Charlene in mortal terror. A car as twisted as a stomped-down Coke tin, from which a slow stream of burgundy ran – the four people within now mannequins, glove puppets, dolls…



     Answer the phone, Charlene, for crying out loud, thought Tom.






Dr. Eisenson arrived at a hair before eleven. Far from the urbane professional that he had seemed on the horn, he had pulled on an attitude of terror. It occurred to Tom to ask what had bothered the other man so; but he didn’t. In fact, he believed (arrogantly, and as it was incorrectly) that the professor’s nerves were connected to the business that he had to conduct with Tom.



     ‘This it?’ Warple asked, with perfect redundancy. It was a case, wasn’t it?



     ‘This is it. And you’ll take good care of it, won’t you?’



     ‘For as long as your banknotes convince me to, Doc.’



     ‘I see…’ said Eisenson. Then he punched through some kind of cloud. ‘Oh, I see,’ he added, and he made a big deal of angling for his wallet in the left inside pocket of a jacket that had not only seen better days, but had seen better decades.



     ‘The magic pill of money,’ said Tom. ‘Different flavour every time, but always delicious.’



     ‘Whatever you say.’ But then Eisenson began to shake: an immediate but frightening manifestation that had Tom reaching for his mind-stored medical factbook. Drunk? Half-baked? What? Certainly the doctor was gibbering like a fool…



     Could the day actually get any worse?



The whiskey! Tom decided. Give him a belt. So saying, he stepped to the water cooler and fished out the bottle.



Eisenson drank like a man who had recently been deprived of clean water. And then he started on with an alien language – some weird and violent vocals. Tom didn't know what the guy was saying.



‘…spirits… apparitions…’ was all he could get.



The wimpy little fruitcake – as Tom had deemed him - said unexpectedly, ‘Don't open it.’



The case? Of course the case…






‘You have to choose, Charlene. It’s him or me.’



     This uttered, with battle-fatigue weariness, towards the end of a stark three-dayer: a seventy-two hour argument. Some kind of record.



     ‘And who are you to offer me final chances, Tom?’ said Charlene. ‘Maybe I should bark one back at you. It’s our family or your job. Now tell me: how did that feel?’



     ‘You’re asking something impossible!’



     ‘Sure. And it feels like you’re being diluted, doesn’t it?’






Still the phone rang on and on, like a siren, unattended; like freakish weather. But Tom could not think of anything that he wanted to do more than talk to Charlene. He felt Christmassy.






…And of course he used a monkey key to pop the briefcase.



I’m only human.



     But he wished he hadn’t.      



It pulsated ghostly within and  oozed green. It looked like the fried ball of ice cream one would get at an upscale Mexican restaurant. The sludge that dripped off it made Tom gag.  Evidently fresh from outer space – or so Tom’s rough-and-ready explanation guide would have it – the object was still throbbing with its power over inertia. 



It kept Tom’s eyesight fixed, even if he was not by now in the room with it: he was back above the vinegar drain, unloading his dinner as well as last month’s breakfast.



Tom failed to recognise the precise cargo that was being jettisoned. He thought: Time’s been goosed. And he praised himself for feeling less spooked than that doctor. He could handle this.



Handle what?



Dr Eisenson had off-loaded a few minutes earlier a cheque that would probably bounce, even if it was a University check, because large chunks of money never came Tom’s way. He solved cases. Getting paid, it seemed, was a different deal entirely.









Whatever it was, it gloated … and sucked gently on the moment. It loves being owned, thought Tom. Like a family cat. 






Something familiar came to Tom’s mind again:



     Goddamn it if I don’t have the worst luck!



      Thunder sneezing through his nose and ears.



      And what’s the time anyway?






      ‘I’m leaving you!’



      But what had he said as a retort?



     ‘You have to choose, Charlene. It’s him or me.’



      That was what he’d said. Now, yesterday, and tomorrow.



     Tom had been caught in the loop that the ‘meteorite’ had brought with it, pulsing with no past and no future. Only a never-ending present moment – as it messily transpired - of being sick and unsick.



     Thanks a lot, said Tom Walpole to the back of his skull.



     I’ve got to give it back to Eisenson.






‘I’ve got to give it back to Eisenson,’ he said to Charlene.



     This uttered, with battle-fatigue weariness, towards the end of a stark three-dayer: a seventy-two hour argument. This is some kind of record, he reflected. Tom had picked at his cat tattoos for hours. He’d eaten ice cream on the kitchen linoleum. He’d eaten extinguished matches and laughed at reruns of Bewitched and I Dream of Jeannie…



      So why did Tom now have the telephone receiver in his hand? Why was he paralyzed in his chair?



      I want to know, he thought. I really don’t remember.



      And why was he pressing ‘1:Home’ on the SpeedDial? Not to talk to either of his sons or to his daughter, he was sure. They’d never loved him anyway; and the twinkle of paternal pride had taken only the first few years to be doused.



      No. He was calling to talk to Charlene, and something felt unusual. I’m going to be sick, he decided. It was in the tone of voice that people used to announce that they were going to leave their jobs.






Tom found himself talking to his own voice on a disconnected phone.






      Pick up the phone, Tom begged.



      But he could no longer recall whose voice he needed to hear.  He heard vortices of unplumbed space in the receiver.  Cosmic spirits, galactic entities unleashed, whispering to him in wavy static.



      That was what he heard. 



      And the ‘meteorite’ oozed and ebbed; it oozed and ebbed.



Posted by weirdtongue at 8:00 PM BST
Updated: Saturday, 25 August 2007 8:02 PM BST

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