By Paddy Bostock
Mystery/Crime, 366 pages
Cover art by Richard Stroud
To escape a floundering relationship and writer’s block, Ambler leaves London for La Rochelle, where he stumbles into a tangle of corruption and revenge with a grisly murder at its centre: a crime which could cost Ambler his freedom — and his sanity.
Ambler was through the door, across the square and down a wooden, shrub-tangled stairway like a cat after a rat. Too much like a cat after a rat, as it turned out because he fell down a number of the top steps, where he wasted a full ten minutes nursing a twisted ankle before venturing down the rest and onto the soft sand, which was no medium for a wrenched joint. Progress was slow.
A full moon stared down on him between a thousand stars. The kind of sky he’d never seen through the street lights of Hackney. Total silence, too, apart from the lapping of the water along the shoreline. Ambler didn’t know what seabirds did at night but assumed they slept like everybody else. Not that he could have cared less about birds or the beauty of the night. All Ambler cared about was finding Lisette and holding her close. Who else could have used that “so it’s you” line? Somehow she must have followed him across the sea to Loix. Not the chimera after all; a flesh and blood woman who’d had second thoughts.
When he found her, the night would indeed become beautiful—magicked into beauty by her presence in it. A stroll along the beach—well, more of a limp for Ambler. No sex. Just a moonlit limp-stroll holding hands like lovers, kicking at the waves and laughing, singing songs and talking, working the wonders. Planning another future, another life...a third way.
Ambler hugged himself as he gazed along the empty beach and stumbled towards the underside of the pier where he expected to find her waiting for him. Dressed in one of those A Man and a Woman white macks with the collar turned up while strains of La Mer played in the background. Ambler liked the old films.
“Lisette?” he called, wrapping an arm around the first of the pier’s stansions for balance. “It’s me.”
Silence. Some cawing from a disturbed gull, otherwise nothing except the occasional hiss of the chill breeze amongst the reeds. Creaks and groans from the effects of the water on the wooden pillars, plus something that sounded like one of them being slapped. A kind of splat. Every few minutes, when the breeze blew a little harder. Maybe she’d got tired of waiting and taken a walk along the sand. Ambler reckoned Lisette to be an impatient person and he had been delayed by the fall. It must be at least half an hour since the phone call.
Please God, don’t let her walk off into the night. Please show me the way to her.
But no evidence of any God on duty. Possibly preoccupied with more pressing issues. Or, even more possibly...just not.
He kicked off his right trainer, eased off the left one, cursed the swelling, and gazed down along the shore. One way and then the other. Staring for any sign of movement, any human shape in the inhuman seascape.
“Lisette?” he called again, louder this time. “It’s me-eee.”
But his voice was carried away along the wind. A cloud skittered across the moon and for a moment it was full night. Ambler could track left or right along the sand that stretched for unknowable distances to unknowable destinations in both directions. The decision was beyond him. Either route could take him to her or away from her. He hopped up and down and scraped the fingers of his right hand across his stubbly head.
Back somewhere farther down the jetty, closer to the water he thought, the splatting started up again. Every time the wind changed direction a little.
“For Christ’s sake,” he said, but, for want of any better plan, went to check where the irritating noise was coming from. Just in case it was Lisette smacking her palm against the woodwork in her frustration at his taking so long. Probably hadn’t heard him coming because she was busy with her mobile calling the hotel again to check he had left. That would be it. That would very probably be it. That or her clapping her hands together to keep warm, a woollen cloche pulled down over her ears so she wouldn’t have heard him calling. Ambler waited for the next splat and then headed towards it, resting between stansions because of the damaged ankle. An unpleasant odour down here, but he braved it.
The odour turned into a stench as he approached; some nameless maritime putrefaction maybe. A lost catch of oysters or mussels—that’s what the Île de Ré was famous for, so the guidebook said. Must happen all the time. Some lazy harvester who’d had better things to do than lug his haul back home. Or maybe an oil tanker spill way out at sea which had murdered wildlife and left their corpses to rot on beaches all along the coast. Ambler had seen the TV pictures of ecological disasters often enough. Or possibly just the ordinary abnormal smells townies like him associated with nature; inured to petrol fumes and pollution, but gagging at the reek of the wild.
Once he finally made his way to the origin of the splatting and the cause of the stench became clear, however, Ambler fell to his knees and didn’t look up again until the bile in his stomach was voided.