OK no apologies, this is a blatant plug for this book...
THE HOUSE ON HYDROGEN HILL - BY PETER TRUCKEL
Surrealist Science Fiction Thriller Humour
Pitched somewhere between the deadpan, anything is possible, wackiness of Kurt Vonnegut and the bizarre but ultimately optimistic fatalism of D.B.C. Pierre this is an audacious and highly accomplished first novel from a clearly very gifted writer.
Truckel plays fast and loose with concepts of scientific theory carrying out mental experiments into the reality bending implications of such things as matter transportation, quantum uncertainty and time travel. The ideas keep coming, from a town laid out in accordance with the periodic table to some rather unfortunate side effects of genetic engineering.
At times salaciously outrageous, and often laugh out loud funny, the story entertains from beginning to end. With a richly convoluted plot and strongly defined, well-drawn characters this is a thoroughly enjoyable page-turner of a book and I urge anyone who might be wavering, don't waver, buy it, read it, tell your friends.
Review by Simon Tayler: Director of ARTEM Physical Special Effects
THE HOUSE ON HYDROGEN HILL
A simple delivery job for brothers Louis and Nathan Apostle, leads them into a bizarre adventure. After collecting an unusual piece of stolen scientific equipment from a derelict warehouse in Detroit, the brothers are told to deliver it to the town of Planck's Island. The town which isn't on any maps, can only be found by following a set of strange handwritten instructions which predict their every move, and seem to reveal a comprehensive knowledge of future events. After surviving an arson attack by a pair of over zealous Mossad agents, the brothers team up with a giantess called Little Inge and her friend - the ghost of Robert Oppenheimer. Pursued by various intelligence agencies and Inge's brother Erwin - a psychopathic dwarf, they travel to Planck's Island, and the house on Hydrogen Hill. . .
...high on technology... His characters are all larger than life, and one is a LOT larger. The interconnectedness of all things are the rails on which this roller coaster of a book runs. Each twist brings a delightful depravity or unexpected bombshell, and like a roller coaster, you may have felt a little sick at times, but you finish with a huge smile on your face. I loved it.
This is a fabulously written,funny and endlessly entertaining first novel from Peter Truckel. The characters are so well crafted and whilst the science sometimes left me realising why my physics "O" level was such a challenge for me, the book is a joy from start to finish. Think Ian Banks meets Mark Helprin,(Winter's Tale) meets John Kennedy O'Toole (Confederacy of Dunces) and you will get some idea of the writing style.
"Of all the books I've read this is one of them" as someone else probably will say once he's read this book. I thought it was extremely enjoyable. I'd like to show my erudition by comparing it to other novels I've read but I only read magazines. Its much funnier than "London Cyclist", for example, and lasts longer; it took me ages to read it so very good value. The paper its printed on is quite thick so it feels like a good quality school geography text book; built to last. No glossy pictures of conurbations alas although Mr Truckel manages to paint some very vivid pictures in your head with words. How does he do that? He is clearly very talented.
This is a very entertaining and enjoyable book that will appeal to those who like humorous science fiction and don't mind seeing the word penis in print. Buy it.
word count: 134,917 page count: 433
Available in paperback from etsy: £9.90 / $15.48
Available from Amazon: £11.99 / $18.75
Available as a Kindle Edition from Amazon: £1.95 / $3.05
includes vat + free international wireless delivery.
Available from createspace (an Amazon company): £8.69 / $13.59
Read the first chapter...
(Bad decision Marilyn)
It was early morning in central Detroit and it wasn’t pretty.
Daybreak had revealed a battle-scarred landscape, littered with the ruins of countless homes, stores and factories - casualties of the social and economic meltdown that decimated the city in the wake of the 1967 riots. The view was more like post ‘Little Boy’ Hiroshima than 21st century Michigan and wasn’t improved by the fat, rain-swollen cumulonimbus, reducing the November sky to a dull, monochromatic smudge.
A cold wind, whipped up by the approaching storm swept across the inner-city wasteland, chasing the tattered pages of a week-old newspaper as they fled like the ghosts of frightened sheep. Nature’s half-hearted attempt at reclaiming the land had left petrified forests of spiky, waist-high weeds, which stood out amongst the debris of razed buildings and clawed at the windblown newsprint with their desiccated bracts. Bulldozers, wrecking balls and decades of indiscriminate dumping had turned the district into a desolate wilderness - but it wasn’t totally devoid of life. Sheltered from the wind in a shallow crater of broken bricks and twisted metal, a large brown rat was breakfasting on the rotting carcass of a dead dog.
The remains had yet to be discovered by other scavengers and until that happened the rat could gorge itself on the decomposing flesh. With the full onslaught of winter just a few weeks away this was good news for the rat but had obviously ceased to be of any interest to the unfortunate pooch - a three-year-old Great Dane/Dandie Dinmont cross called Marilyn.
Picked out as a nine-week-old puppy from the ‘Pets by Post’ website, Marilyn had been the overindulged family pet of Eugene and Grace Garabedian. Although she bore no resemblance to the cute ball of fur in her Internet photographs the eccentric looking animal soon became a surrogate daughter for the childless couple and the glue that held their increasingly fragile marriage together. But when the Garabedians moved house (so Grace could be nearer her widowed and rather wayward mother), Marilyn suddenly decided she’d had enough of her hedonistic and pampered lifestyle. An ancient feral memory, buried deep within the peculiar cocktail of her DNA, triggered a survival instinct that had lain dormant in scores of her ancestors. It urged her to take off, get back to her old scent-marked territory, enjoy her freedom and live a little.
Six days after running away from her new home and still many miles from the familiar smells of her old neighbourhood, Marilyn was lost, disorientated and weak with hunger when she was hit by a speeding car. Badly injured, she managed to drag herself several hundred yards from the roadside, through a hostile terrain of bricks, rusting cans, broken bottles and discarded crack vials, before she finally died. Two weeks later her major organs had become a valuable source of protein for the rat.
Bad decision Marilyn.
* * * * *
The sound of a powerful engine shattered the silence.
Curiosity instantly overcame the hungry rodent’s urge to feed. Pulling its blood-soaked snout from the remains of Marilyn’s kidneys, the rat stood on its hind legs and peered through the dog’s exposed rib cage as the noise grew steadily louder. Ignoring the frenzy of blow flies swarming around the eviscerated pet, it watched without blinking as a large semi-trailer eased slowly out of the timber-framed warehouse seventy-five yards from its hiding place. The huge tin-roofed structure was the only building in the immediate vicinity still standing and completely dominated the rubble-strewn vista.
Eleven seconds later, in a cloud of blue exhaust smoke, the truck’s long trailer finally pulled clear of the warehouse doors.
Squeezing its head between two of the ribs, the rat followed the 18-wheeler’s progress as it rocked and bounced over the network of rusting railway tracks criss-crossing the depot’s seldom used service road. Beyond the acres of stark post-industrial decay the clouds briefly parted and a shaft of sunlight burst through the haze of dirty yellow pollution staining the sky above the Motor City like a fading toxic bruise. The thin autumnal sunshine squeezed between the silhouetted corporate headquarters and towering financial citadels that dominated the re-branded Downtown skyline, before glinting off the truck’s pristine windshield and temporarily blinding the inquisitive rat.
The heavy vehicle rumbled on, passing within inches of Marilyn’s last resting place. Highway-grade Bridgestones crunched over a crude amalgam of building debris and consumer trash until the truck reached an unmanned gatehouse at the fenced-off perimeter of the badlands surrounding the warehouse. Slowing to a crawl, its throbbing engine sent ripples dancing across the puddles littering the acne-scarred asphalt. Fragmented reflections ricocheted across the broken windows of the graffiti tagged security building - zigzagging over the shattered glass, they tracked the semi-trailer’s progress as it passed cautiously between a pair of useless metal gates hanging crookedly on their twisted hinges and entered the lawless back streets of Detroit’s second worst ghetto.
In the truck’s bright red cab Louis Apostle rolled his unlit but well-chewed cigar into the corner of his mouth and spat out of the open window. Either by luck or skill the quasi-solid ball of tobacco tinted mucus hit the top strand of the rusting chain-link fence adjoining the gatehouse and hung there, swinging in the wind like a solitary amber earring. Ignoring a stop sign, Louis changed gear and pumped the gas. Then letting out a long, melancholic sigh he turned to face the man next to him and said, ‘I tell ya Nathan, there are times when I hate this fucking planet.’
‘Oh shit…’ thought Nathan, ‘here we go again.’
He closed his eyes and tried to think of something else, anything else, in an attempt to block out what was bound to follow. He’d heard this rant countless times before and knew by heart the well-trodden path it would follow. Louis would soon forget the original reason for his irritation and using his collection of science fiction comics from the 1950s and 60s as a frame of reference, he’d start complaining that the gravity on Earth was too strong, before going on to criticise the ratio of land to water and the distance to the nearest inhabitable star system.
Nathan stayed silent, refusing to be drawn into the conversation and hoping that Louis would let the matter drop. Instinctively though, he knew that would never happen and the diatribe would continue with or without his assistance.
* * * * *
Louis and Nathan Apostle were half-brothers, and despite having a great deal of genetic material in common the two men weren’t at all alike. At thirty-seven, Louis was almost three years older than Nathan; he was also six inches shorter and never less than forty-seven pounds heavier. Five minutes after shaving Louis looked as if he hadn’t shaved for three or four days, unlike Nathan who could go for nearly a week without using a razor and still appear freshly barbered. Louis’ hair was thinning and the remaining strands, which were permanently lank and greasy, were combed straight back over his head. In contrast, Nathan had short, tight, curly hair.
The most obvious difference though was that Louis was white and Nathan was black. This peculiar twist of fate came about when Louis was eighteen months old and his father Dmitri, a small-time career criminal, was given a two-year prison sentence for fencing stolen goods. During Dmitri’s incarceration his twenty-three-year-old wife Venus had a passionate on-off relationship with a temperamental Jamaican jazz guitarist called Henry Henry.
Three months before Dmitri was released from jail his wife gave birth to Nathan.
Three days after his release Dmitri was back in court, charged with the murder of Henry Henry. The case was a gift for the prosecution and the easiest the future District Attorney would ever handle. Eight hundred and sixty-two people had been in the audience when Dmitri walked onto the well-lit stage of a popular Brooklyn night-club holding a stolen Smith and Wesson. He fired seven 9 millimetre bullets into the musician and one into the body of his cherished, mint condition 1959 Gibson Les Paul. It took the jury just two minutes to return a guilty verdict, after which the judge handed Dmitri a sentence of 25 years to life.
Thanks to his physical strength, fighting ability and sheer determination, Dmitri survived the hotbed of racial violence in Sing Sing prison for nearly a year before being fatally stabbed with a sharpened spoon handle during a fight in the prison yard. The black gang member who killed him was never identified and the overstretched prison authorities, in an attempt to avoid another potential riot, were more than happy to let the matter slide.
After Dmitri’s death Venus was ostracised by the other members of her husband’s family. She never remarried and soon went back to using her maiden name, as did the two boys, who grew up in their mother’s seventh floor walk-up apartment on Avenue B in New York’s Alphabet City.
Venus was fiercely protective of her sons and worked hard to provide for them. As the boys got older they both developed an uncanny physical resemblance to their respective fathers, which was a source of great comfort to their mother. Nathan inherited his father’s guitar as well as his looks, but unfortunately not his ear for music. After his only piano lesson the teacher promptly returned the three dollar fee to Venus on the understanding Nathan never came again. She claimed his playing sounded as if he imagined the keys were someone’s face – someone he didn’t like. Louis on the other hand was pitch perfect and on the rare occasions when he bathed or used a shower he could be heard singing a range of songs, from classic opera to contemporary pop in a rich and beautiful baritone.
The brothers were also poles apart when it came to interacting with members of the opposite sex. Louis had been out with a few girls over the years but he always found it difficult to start relationships. When he did they were usually short-lived and generally unsatisfying. Unlike Nathan, who after losing his virginity at the age of fourteen had never looked back. He knew he’d probably settle down one day, but until then Nathan was more than happy to play the field. Something he managed to do with a reasonably good grace and without ever really upsetting any of his numerous girlfriends.
On an intellectual level Louis and Nathan were also very different. Although Louis could just about manage to read and write, there were no more than a handful of machines on the entire planet he couldn’t strip, fix and reassemble without ever looking at a manual. While Nathan was never happier than when he was reading - this could be anything from newspapers and magazines to the classics of world literature and he’d regularly get through two or three books a day. He also had a photographic memory and showed flashes of such brilliant and intuitive genius that his IQ was, by conventional methods, unquantifiable.
Growing up in a part of the city where gang violence was a way of life meant the brothers had frequently found themselves in situations where they had to rely on their fists and as a result they’d grown up to be the sort of guys you’d want on your side in a fight. Nathan’s style was a classic combination of well-disciplined Taekwondo and kickboxing, while Louis relied on good old-fashioned, totally undisciplined street-fighting techniques with just a little bit of bar-room brawl thrown in for good measure.
After finishing (or in Louis’ case, failing to finish) their schooling, the brothers had gone into business together. Their tax returns claimed they worked in the transportation and haulage industry. Roughly translated, that meant they were paid to move stolen or smuggled goods around the country. Their long client list was impressive and included three Mafia families, a Yakuza gang, the Hell’s Angels, the CIA and Microsoft.
Louis and Nathan still lived with their mother but they’d moved from Alphabet City to a generous four-storey brownstone in Greenwich Village. The rented building had a large, useful yard to the rear and the ground floor at the front of the property had been turned into what soon became the most popular coffee bar in the area. Besides keeping house and looking after her two sons, Venus Apostle also ran the tiny coffee shop, which was simply called ‘Venus’, and frequently had long queues of people waiting for what was probably the best espresso in New York.
The brothers’ business success had recently culminated in the purchase of the top of the range Volvo semi-trailer Louis was steering carefully through the litter-strewn back streets of Detroit. On both cab doors a sign-writer had lovingly crafted in navy blue paint with a gold outline and a black drop shadow, the words: ‘The Apostle Brothers’. There was no telephone number or contact address. The people who gave the brothers most of their work inhabited a shady world of mistrust, where deals were done by word of mouth, reputation was everything and letting a client down could be fatal.
Strapped to the long flatbed trailer behind the cab was a large, very unusual piece of high-tech equipment. It was covered by several tarpaulins and held securely in place with enough ropes and chains to keep a team of sadomasochists in a state of arousal for many months. The strange apparatus had been loaded onto the truck by a gang of maladjusted sociopaths working in the semi-derelict warehouse when Louis and Nathan had arrived there an hour earlier.
* * * * *
While Louis had supervised the five warehousemen as they struggled to hoist the heavy and unwieldy cargo onto the trailer using a pair of ancient diesel winches, Nathan went in search of Vincent Esposito - the owner of the building. He found him in a small, square office tucked into the far corner of the sprawling warehouse. The claustrophobic, windowless room was wallpapered with 20 years’ worth of fading centrefolds taken from a selection of gratuitously explicit men’s magazines, the most recent of which was older than Nathan.
‘Hi,’ said Nathan, pushing open the door to the rank, smoke-filled office. ‘I guess you know who we are and why we’re here.’ His eyes flicked quickly across the repetitive, almost abstract display of close-up vaginas before finding Esposito once again. ‘Do I need to sign anything?’
‘You’re joking, right?’ replied Esposito, without a trace of humour in his voice.
A sixty-two year old hulking bully of a man - Esposito had fat, bruised knuckles, rheumy eyes and the bulbous veined nose of a hardened drinker. His thick, wavy black hair was liberally peppered with silver and a lightning bolt of badly healed scar tissue, picked up in a gang fight forty-five years earlier, ran from just above his left eye to his cheekbone. He was wearing a pair of grease-stained jeans and a well-worn leather jacket over a grey sweatshirt and was sitting at a battered desk nursing a mug of coffee so liberally laced with alcohol Nathan could smell it from more than eight feet away.
Esposito’s shoulders may have rounded with the passing years but he was still powerfully built with a brutal and intimidating manner. However beneath that veneer of toughness was the haunted look of a frightened man. Something he attempted to disguise by giving Nathan a cursory sneer as he dropped his half-smoked cigarette to the floor, then ground it out with a heavy work-boot before taking a long drink from his mug.
‘Do you know where we’re supposed to take that thing?’ asked Nathan, unfazed by the man’s surly attitude. He tilted his head in the direction of the open door, through which he could see the machine being winched onto the back of the Volvo. ‘All we were told, was to turn up at 7 o’clock and pick up something called a ‘biomagnetic rectilinear-amplifier’. Our contact said someone here would give us the delivery address.’
‘That would be me I guess.’ Esposito grudgingly put down his mug, pulled open a drawer and took out a bottle of bourbon followed by a slim white envelope. ‘I was told to give you this,’ he said, holding up the envelope with his left hand. Using the fingers of his right hand he spun the cap from the bottle with practised ease and topped up his ‘coffee’. He took a generous swig before adding another half inch of bourbon to the mug, then recapped the bottle and slipped it back into the drawer.
The alcohol seemed to give him confidence.
‘A real nasty little dwarf turned up here late last night, about ten minutes after your load arrived,’ he paused then added, ‘in a fucking helicopter of all things. He said to tell you the machine had to be delivered to The Doppelgänger Institute in a place called Planck’s Island - these are the directions to get there. He also said you had to follow them exactly if you wanted to find the place and get paid.’
‘Planck’s Island…’ said Nathan, reaching across the desk and taking the envelope from Esposito. He turned it over. Hand-written on the front it simply said, ‘How to find Planck’s Island’, ‘Never heard of it. Did he say anything else?’
‘Only that it’s not an island, apparently it’s nowhere near water.’ Esposito waited a moment, looking Nathan in the eye before continuing. ‘And that if I or any of my men even thought about mentioning this transaction to anyone we’d die slowly and very badly. And before you ask yes I believed him, I’ve been around enough hard men to know when someone means shit like that.’
Nathan gave him a quizzical look, but before he could reply Esposito stood up and said, ‘I think our business is about done.’
He was looking over Nathan’s shoulder at his men, who were finishing their adjustments to the ropes and chains securing the machine to the trailer. ‘If you haven’t figured it out yet I’ll let you in on a little secret,’ continued Esposito arrogantly. ‘You’re playing with some very serious fuckers. That piece of kit on the back of your truck belongs to The Jet Propulsion Laboratory and they’re gonna be really pissed when they find it missing. You’d better watch your backs, if it’s traced to you and your brother you’ll have all sorts of Federal shit crawling over you.’
Nathan had spent a sizeable chunk of his adult life evading various law enforcement agencies, even so the prospect of driving across the country with a massive piece of high-tech machinery stolen from NASA on the back of the truck didn’t exactly thrill him. ‘Thanks for the advice,’ he said, slipping the envelope into his shirt pocket and turning to leave.
‘I can’t afford to be fingered for something like this,’ shouted Esposito, following Nathan to the door. ‘As soon as you’re outa here this place is gonna be history. There’ll be nothing left to tie me or my boys to it, so don’t get any cute ideas about trying to cut a deal with the police or the feds.’
Nathan ignored him and walked calmly back towards the truck, watched by the handful of sullen men who’d just loaded the stolen biomagnetic rectilinear-amplifier onto the trailer. They were now unloading a stack of five-gallon gasoline canisters from the back of a pickup, parked a few feet from the Volvo.
Climbing into the cab and shutting the door, Nathan looked at his brother. ‘We’re good to go, let’s get out of here,’ he said simply.
* * * * *
Apart from a pack of stray dogs and a handful of homeless men and women who wandered the squalid streets muttering to themselves, the area surrounding the warehouse was deserted. It only really came alive after dark, when its anonymous alleys and unlicensed basement bars offered the pleasure, pain or oblivion so many of the city’s lonely inhabitants sought. But at the first sign of dawn the night-time predators, dealers, pimps, whores and victims disappeared - like vampires hiding from the light of the new day.
While Louis manoeuvred the large truck through a maze of nameless roads and boarded up buildings, Nathan played with the Sat Nav. After a few moments he switched it off and gazed out of the window at the passing streets and the piles of trash, which were constantly being rearranged by the gusting wind. The future had been derailed and by the mid 1970s a vibrant and thriving neighbourhood with a real community spirit had mutated into an unforgiving hellhole where gentrification was a distant dream and life was cheap. He had to admit that in the face of such damning evidence his brother’s pessimistic view of the world had some validity.
But he also knew the best way to prevent Louis listing the numerous things he found wrong with his home planet was to quickly change the subject. ‘So Louis…’ he said nonchalantly, ‘what do you suppose a biomagnetic rectilinear-amplifier is used for?’
Louis stared in amazement at Nathan and snorted, ‘Hello! Do I look like a freakin’ scientist? How the fuck would I know what it’s used for?’ Shaking his head, he turned back to face the road before continuing. ‘All I know is we’re being paid a hundred thousand of the finest American dollars, to pick one up from a lousy, rat-infested warehouse here in beautiful Detroit City and transport it somewhere. I take it you’ve got an address.’
‘Yeah, I’ve got an address,’ replied Nathan with a wry smile. ‘We’re going to a place called Planck’s Island and when we get there we’re supposed to drop off our load at The Doppelgänger Institute. I can’t help wondering though, what sort of people are involved in this Doppelgänger Institute. I mean they can hardly be legal or honest if they’re dealing with guys like us can they?’
‘No, I think it’s safe to say they’re probably of the criminal persuasion,’ sighed Louis, humouring his brother.
‘I agree,’ continued Nathan, ‘and if that’s the case, how’d they manage to get hold of something like a biomagnetic-rectilinear-amplifier? Which according to Jimmy Hoffa’s stunt double back at the warehouse, was once the property of The Jet Propulsion Laboratory, or in other words our esteemed Government.’
There was a crunch from the gearbox as Louis’ foot slipped off the clutch. He turned to stare angrily at his brother.
‘What the fuck have you got us into?’ he screamed furiously.
‘Me get us into!’ shouted Nathan defensively. ‘It was you who took the original call. You who said it would be a ‘sweet little trip across country - something to run in the Volvo’.’
Louis looked at his brother with disbelief. He was about to tell him that when they’d discussed it, Nathan was also all for doing the job; saying the hundred thousand bucks would pay off much of what they still owed on the new truck. But he decided to let the matter drop. Partly because Nathan’s revelation made what should have been an ordinary delivery job a bit more interesting and partly because he knew it would just end in the usual stalemate, with countless accusations and denials - and two or three days of ‘did - didn’t - did - didn’t - yes you fucking did’, which would be too much to bear.
It was Louis’ turn to change the subject.
‘Okay, okay... forget it,’ he said shaking his head. ‘So have you had a look on the map to find out exactly where this Planck’s Island place is? I guess it’s on the coast, but are we looking at the Atlantic or the Pacific?’
Nathan frowned. ‘Neither,’ he said pensively, ‘it’s very weird... Planck’s Island isn’t actually an island it’s totally landlocked…’
‘Whatever,’ said Louis impatiently, ‘just look it up on the map or put it in the Sat Nav and tell me what Interstate we need to be on.’
‘The other weird thing if you’ll let me finish is that it isn’t on the map. According to both The American Automobile Association and the Sat Nav, the town of Planck’s Island doesn’t exist.’
‘How the hell are we meant to find the fuckin’ place then?’ demanded Louis, screwing his face up even more than usual and sliding his cigar back to the other side of his mouth.
‘I was given this…’ Nathan held up the envelope, ‘and apparently we have to follow the instructions it contains, which will tell us and I quote, ‘How to find Planck’s Island’.’
He slit open the envelope with his finger and pulled out a folded sheet of legal paper. Both sides were covered with very small, very neat handwriting, done in ink with an old-fashioned fountain pen.
‘Okay mister co-pilot,’ said Louis looking at Nathan expectantly, ‘what does it say?’
‘Well,’ said Nathan, unfolding the paper and running his eyes up the long list of instructions. ‘The first thing it says here is… look out for the dog!’
Whipping his head around, Louis was just in time to turn the steering wheel and avoid hitting a brown and white Jack Russell, rolling on its back in the middle of the road. From the sidewalk his driving skills were loudly applauded by the dog’s owners - a couple of down and outs, sitting on a broken refrigerator outside a boarded-up video rental store, sharing a cigarette and an early morning bottle of Colt 45.
‘Nice timing, thanks bro’!’ said Louis as the heavy truck thundered past the startled terrier and cheering hobos. ‘Now what the fuck does it say on those instructions?’
Nathan was confused. ‘I just told you!’ he said. ‘Right here at the top of the page, the first thing it says is look out for the dog. Then it says turn left by the blind man.’
Louis’ eyebrows knitted together in an angry frown that seemed to say, ‘If you’re trying to be funny, you’re gonna be spending a little face-time with Mister Fist and the Knuckle Brothers.’
But a sixth sense made Louis shift his eyes to the front, just in time to see an old black man standing nervously by the side of the road as if waiting to cross. He was wearing a threadbare coat, a battered trilby and a pair of shades. With his right hand he was dragging a three-wheeled shopping cart, piled high with everything he owned. In his left hand he was holding a white cane. Louis didn’t hesitate. Braking hard, he dropped down two gears and spun the steering wheel sharply to the left. The truck lurched violently, before it shuddered round the corner - missing the man by inches and blowing the hat from his head as he turned to follow the speeding vehicle with sightless eyes.
After making the turn Louis continued on for a further hundred yards, before slowing down some more and pulling onto the weed infested empty forecourt of an abandoned used car dealership. The business had closed about eighteen months earlier, after failing to entice customers with the slogan - ‘Python Pete’s Used Cars: A free snake with every car purchased’.
* * * * *
Python Pete - a reptile fanatic, had sunk his life’s savings plus a hundred and fifty-thousand dollars he’d borrowed from his brother, into what he considered to be a sure-fire business venture backed up with a great sales gimmick. The car-buying public hadn’t agreed and in his first four weeks of trading he made only one sale. Things didn’t improve even after he upped the offer to two and then finally three free snakes. Inevitably, nine short weeks later his dream came to an end. Unable to meet his monthly payments Python Pete defaulted on the lease and was forced to close. The bank repossessed his cars, leaving him with no means of income or of ever being able to pay off his debts. His wife, who’d lost her love of reptiles and her husband many years before, decided she’d had enough and kicked him out. After putting a few clothes into a suitcase and using a false name, he moved to a low-rent trailer park on the outskirts of Charlotte, North Carolina with his remaining fifty-three snakes.
Unfortunately, the day after moving in he foolishly ate a can of out-of-date economy tuna that had been sitting in the trailer’s solitary kitchen cupboard since the previous tenant’s hasty departure six years earlier. Even by Python Pete’s pitifully low standards the contents smelled bad. But he was hungry, and hey - what’s the worst thing that can happen to a guy who eats a can of tuna?
It didn’t take long to find out.
After spending two days vomiting, passing blood and being crippled with agonising stomach cramps he died on the floor of the trailer with only his disinterested snakes for company. His body was discovered four months later, when a group of neighbours broke open the door after becoming concerned about the smell. By that time the number of snakes inhabiting the mobile home had increased to nearly two hundred and many of them were using Python Pete’s well-rotted remains as both a bedroom and a larder.
Two of his ex-neighbours were still in therapy.
* * * * *
Louis switched off the ignition. He snatched the sheet of paper from Nathan’s hand and read the first three lines of instructions aloud, ‘Look out for the dog… turn left at the blind man… when you pull out of Python Pete’s forecourt continue south until you get to the house fire… twenty yards after the fire turn right.’
It was Louis’ turn to be confused - very confused.
‘What the fuck is going on Nathan?’ he screeched, turning the sheet of paper over and scanning both sides. ‘There must be more than three hundred separate instructions here! And they seem to know what we’re gonna do before we do it. Who did you say gave it to you?’
Nathan smiled at his brother. ‘There are four hundred and thirty-seven to be exact,’ he said evenly, ‘and I was given it by the guy in charge of those faceless humps back at the warehouse. He’d been told to give it to us by a weird, psychopathic dwarf who turned up in a helicopter late last night, just after the truck delivering the biomagnetic rectilinear-amplifier arrived.’
Nathan took back the sheet of paper from Louis. ‘He also said the dwarf made it very clear we had to follow these instructions exactly or we’d never be able to find Planck’s Island, let alone The Doppelgänger Institute. And if we can’t find the place we won’t be able to deliver this biomagnetic shit to it, which means we won’t get the hundred thousand bucks we’ve been promised.’
Louis was perplexed, or he would have been if he’d known what it meant, in his vocabulary he was, ‘getting a bit fuckin’ freaked out’. His substantial eyebrows had moved even closer together. If they travelled any further towards each other they’d be unified in one glorious ridge of thick black hair. He liked things to be relatively uncomplicated and this job was shaping up to be anything but that.
‘Okay then little brother,’ he said after giving the matter some thought and getting nowhere, ‘talk to me - what do you think we should do?’
‘Well,’ said Nathan seriously, ‘if we want to get paid, and I’m pretty sure we do, I think we’ve gotta follow these instructions and make the delivery. Besides, I’m intrigued to see what a town that isn’t on the map, that’s called an island but is nowhere near water and is named after the man who’s hailed as one of the founding fathers of Quantum Mechanics actually looks like.’
He paused for a moment before adding casually, ‘Apart from that, our delivery is obviously of interest to someone because we’ve been followed by an unmarked, black Chevy Suburban since we left the warehouse.’
‘Oh well… if you put it like that,’ said Louis, thumbing the toggle switch to adjust his door mirror so he could see what Nathan was talking about.
Sure enough, fifty yards behind them on the opposite side of the road, parked in front of a fire-damaged pawnbroker’s shop, was a powerful looking black SUV complete with tinted windows and three antennae.
Louis started the engine and put the Volvo in gear. He rolled the cigar across his lips and spat out of the window. Then letting the clutch out he eased the truck off the forecourt, whilst carefully watching the Suburban in his mirror. ‘Pretty punchy model, looks like it might be the special option twin-turbo version that GM deny making,’ he said appreciatively. ‘By the number of antennae I guess its either the Feds or the Secret Service. I can’t see why the Secret Service would be following us, so that means it must be the FBI, which certainly ain’t the best news I’ve had all day. What the fuck have we got ourselves into?’
‘Yeah, it’s getting interesting. I think we can assume the large piece of scientific equipment on the back of the truck didn’t walk out of The Jet Propulsion Laboratory on its own,’ said Nathan, leaning forward in his seat to watch in his door mirror as Louis brought the trailer carrying their precious cargo onto the road, before continuing. ‘I’d go as far as to say it wasn’t the biomagnetic rectilinear-amplifier that telephoned us with detailed instructions about the pick up address or arranged to pay us the hundred thousand bucks to deliver it to these Doppelgänger freaks. No Louis, I think what we’ve got here is a fishing expedition. Someone in the intelligence community wants to find Planck’s Island and it looks as if they’re using a piece of equipment stolen from NASA as bait.’
‘Right… that’s more or less what I was thinking,’ replied Louis nodding his head slowly. ‘But what are our options and what’s the legal position on our load?’
‘Well it’s a safe bet the Feds already know what’s on the back of the truck. Plus they’re tailing us in a big old armour-plated SUV, which is so obvious they might as well be driving a carnival float, maybe there are other tails we can’t see.’
Nathan paused and looked around, checking for other signs of surveillance. He couldn’t see any and continued, ‘So if we’re gonna stand any chance of getting our money from these Doppelgänger guys we’ve gotta try to get there without the Feds following us. If we don’t, and they decide to pull us in with this baby in our possession, we’ll be well and truly fucked. The charges would be theft, industrial espionage, grand larceny and after the way you took that corner back there, dangerous driving. Oh yeah, I nearly forgot - and spitting in a built up area. Which ever way you look at it we’re not gonna get out of this one unless we’re very, very lucky.’
Behind them, the Suburban pulled away from the curb and quickly picked up speed as it resumed its pursuit. Suddenly and without any warning all four of its tyres exploded. Louis watched in his door mirror, wide-eyed with fascination, as the eighteen foot, 5 ton vehicle cart-wheeled dramatically across both lanes of the otherwise empty road. It eventually landed with a loud, echoing crash on its badly dented roof, straddling the sidewalk in front of ‘Python Pete’s’ like an upturned tortoise.
‘Well I’d call that pretty fucking lucky, wouldn’t you?’ said Louis, in a particularly patronising tone of voice.
‘No I wouldn’t...’ replied Nathan calmly. ‘I think that’s what happens when someone goes fishing for sardines and hooks a barracuda.’ He turned to look out of the windshield, ‘Look,’ he said, pointing to the road ahead, ‘there’s a house on fire. We’ve got to turn right just after it.’
Two men in understated but very well-cut dark grey suits pushed open the doors and crawled out of the disabled SUV. Standing on the sidewalk next to their overturned vehicle, they watched as the large semi-trailer drove away from them, then turned right twenty yards after a burning house.