tagNovels and NovellasThe Hermaphrodite's Curse Ch. 16

The Hermaphrodite's Curse Ch. 16



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As a child, the idea of getting a train from London to Paris through a tunnel under the sea seemed wondrous and exciting to Gabe. It seemed like the sort of thing that would only happen in a fantastical story and yet it had happened, the tunnel had been built and now here he found himself on the train travelling to the City of Lights beside a woman who was nearly a perfect stranger to him.

The day before, Gabe had been specifically told by the police not to leave the country and now he found himself doing just that. When he had told Saphy, as they travelled back from Cambridge to London, the story of everything that had happened to him that afternoon and what the police had told him the day before, she had said that that was just why they had to leave the country and do it as soon as possible.

"If they're telling you not to leave the country now, that means that in a couple of days there'll probably get around to blocking your passport," Saphy had said, "If we ever want to solve this mystery we need to leave now before they stop us."

"Why do we have to leave the country?" Gabe had wondered.

"Well, for one, if the police are after you as their prime suspect, it's probably best to get as far from them as possible," Saphy replied, "For another, if we really think that following the clues and searching for the Fountain of Salmacis is the way to find out just what is happening here, then we'll have to go abroad. I seriously doubt we can find the fountain in Britain. Thirdly, if the police made a point of telling you not to leave the country, I suspect they have some vested interest in keeping you here beyond you being a suspect."

"What do you mean?" Gabe asked.

"How do you think you were able to escape from that cellar? Why weren't you as brutally butchered as Jane?" Saphy demanded, quite aggressively, almost as if she blamed him for not dying instead of her former mentor, "They let you escape, Gabe, they wanted you to get away and get caught. How do you think that the police were able to pick you up so quickly and have all their evidence to hand if they weren't directed that way?"

"I don't understand, you think it was a setup?" Gabe responded.

"Yeah, I think that whoever these people are, they're powerful enough to have some kind of hold over the police," Saphy agreed, "But not powerful enough to make a dead body just completely disappear. The murder at the gallery was on the front page of all the national papers and got loads of TV coverage. The police can't just let the case lie. They need to be seen to be investigating it. They need a suspect, a fall guy. Today they were able to engineer a situation in which you could be that fall guy. It ties up all their loose ends, gets you and Jane out of the way."

"And what about you?" Gabe had asked, feeling perhaps a little suspicious over how Saphy had remained unharmed throughout all of this.

"I didn't provide any witness statements or anything for the London murder," Saphy reminded him, "And I had an alibi for this afternoon. I was at the library surrounded by people, not locked in some mystery basement. I'm sure that once they have the time to pick over the evidence and your photos properly, they'll want to question me further. Something that I have no interest in. I've dealt with the police before, enough to not have a lot of faith in them. That's why we have to leave before they catch up with us."

"So, where are we going then?" Gabe had asked, "What are we looking for? It is definitely 'we' now then?"

"Like you said before, we're in this together whether we like it or not," Saphy replied, "I think we're both agreed that the sooner we figure out the mystery, the sooner we can present a real suspect and clear out names."

"Right," Gabe agreed, "And the best way to do that is to follow the clues that we have, to seek out the secrets in the Rokeby Venus and see if it leads us to Salmacis."

"Exactly," Saphy agreed, "Glad to see that we are on the same wavelength at last. While I was in the library, I looked up everything that I could about the Hermaphroditus legend and the Borghese Hermaphroditus. I never want to take something a professor says at face value, I want to have it confirmed by my own researches. What did you find out from Dr. Gerard?"

"I'm pretty sure that Robert White was looking for the Fountain of Salmacis when he disappeared," Gabe responded, excitedly, "I found this on his desk. I can't make sense especially of the list, but it shows he was interested in the Borghese sculpture."

Gabe fished around in his pocket and pulled out a crumpled piece of paper. He unfolded it and placed it on the table in front of them. The black and white image of the Hermaphroditus sculpture was visible despite being pretty poor quality. Saphy looked down the list of place names, looking quite pleased with the discovery.

"The Louvre, Uffizi, the Met, they're all major museums," she said, "The museums and collections that have a copy of the sculpture. Like Jane said, the Borghese sculpture is not the original, it's just the first copy to be rediscovered. All these other museums have versions as well, either Roman copies like the Borghese one or later copies of that. The copy Velazquez had made is in the Prado in Madrid. Not only does this prove that White was interested in the sculpture, it gives us a course to follow. If White thought he could find out about the Fountain of Salmacis through looking at these sculptures then we'd do well to follow."

"But, which one?" Gabe asked.

"I'd say we could do plenty worse than start at the beginning," Saphy said, looking at the first name on the list, "The first version of the sculpture, the one that used to be on display in the Villa Borghese, is now on display in Paris, in the Louvre. If we leave London first thing tomorrow, Paris is the first place we can get to. We can be there by lunchtime."

That was how Gabe now found himself on board a train speeding beneath the English Channel, heading for Paris and more mysteries locked in classical works of art. He had not managed to get much sleep the night before, returning late to his flat and having to pack up a case for this morning's trip and then get up before sunrise to get to the station. He felt tired and a little grumpy and the pain in his head from being knocked out the day before was still feeling pretty sore.

"You know this mystery is thousands of years old," he complained, "I'm sure it could have waited a few more hours to be solved. Then we could have actually got a little sleep."

"Not been getting your beauty sleep, pretty boy?" Saphy teased, "That wouldn't please your vain goddess."

"Hmph," Gabe made a sulky noise, "My goddess? You're the one with her symbol inked into your skin."

"OK, OK," Saphy laughed, "That reminds me, I picked up a little something in the library you might like."

She opened her bag and pulled out a book. Gabe's heart skipped a beat as he took in the faded and torn cover, the golden haired goddess rising from the sea. It was Love's Children. His own copy had been lost years ago, when he was still a child. For a couple of years he had looked for the book whenever in a book shop but with little luck. After a while he had just given up and started to forget about it, right up until the events of the past week had thrown Venus and the legend of Hermaphroditus violently back into his thoughts. And now he had found it again, the book that had meant so much to him, now he could hold it in his hands, turn the pages and read the story he had once known by heart.

"Oh, thank you," Gabe said excitedly, genuinely thrilled to have the book in his possession once more, "This is amazing."

"It's just a book," Saphy responded, offhand, "And not a very popular one at that."

"That's what makes it so special," Gabe replied, "It's the best present I've had in years."

"Which is kind of tragic, when you put it like that," she said, "You've not had anything better than an ageing library book in all that time?"

"If it's a library book, won't somebody mind that you're taking it away?" he asked.

"It's sort of on a permanent loan."

"You mean you stole it?" he said, slightly aghast.

"I prefer to think of it as liberating the book, redistributing it where it will be better appreciated," she said, pouting a little like a sulky child, "Look, I thought you were pleased, but if you don't want to be accepting stolen goods I'll just have it back."

She snatched the book back off him, causing the flimsy cover to rip a little further. He blushed red with either embarrassment or irritation, it was hard to tell, and grabbed it back from her.

"No, I'll keep it," he said decisively, but the moment between them was gone, her touching gesture of finding the book that meant more to him than she really knew, and his genuine gratitude was buried beneath his shyness and her prickly temperament.

They sat there alongside each other, staring blankly forwards at the seatbacks in front of them as the darkness of the tunnel flashed by outside the window. Gabe flicked idly through the pages of the book, not really taking in the stories of Hymenaeus, disguised as a woman to follow his beloved, and Priapus, cursed with a giant penis and driven constantly by lust and impotence, as he ran backwards through the yellowing leaves of the 1970s publication. On the inside cover was a picture of the author, Robert White, as a young man not much older than Gabe himself. There was something about those high cheekbones and narrow, pointed jaw line that seemed familiar to Gabe, but whether it was just a reminder of the hours spent staring at this book as a child he could not tell.

As he randomly turned the pages through Dido burning herself alive on a funeral pyre to her spirit's snub of her former lover in the underworld, Gabe's mind wandered onto the woman sitting beside him. He could see how she had managed to push people away all her life; that was obviously what had happened between her and her former mentor, Professor Cavendish. He found himself getting annoyed at how Saphy would react whenever there was a moment when she let her guard down, she would become aggressive in the next instant.

Finally, admitting he obviously could not concentrate on the book, he got his bag out and slid the book into it. Unfortunately for him, this action just attracted Saphy's attention and gave her a new outlet for her sulky annoyance.

"Didn't I tell you to pack light?" she said, "We don't want to be tied down anywhere. Why did you have to bring all that stuff?"

"You just can't bear to spend any time settled anywhere, can you?" Gabe demanded, annoyed at her always taking the confrontational position, "Can you ever just be in one place that makes you happy or do you need to be always running and fighting?"

"In case you don't remember, we're running because we're being chased," Saphy replied with her voice raised so that other passengers on the train started looking round, "It's not like we had a choice other than stick around and end up butchered like Jane! So, as we're likely to be doing quite a bit of running, couldn't you have brought a bit less stuff? What the hell have you got in those bags, anyway?"

"It's all my camera equipment," Gabe explained, a little embarrassed, opening his bag and pulling out various black lumpy objects, "Wide angle lens, telephoto, macro lens for close ups," he listed the objects as he pulled them out, "Tripod, remote control, underwater housing."

"Underwater housing?" Saphy asked, as if offended by the very idea, taking and examining the object, a grey box the shape of the camera that went around the outside of the whole thing, completely encasing the camera to make it waterproof, "You planning on taking a deep sea diving trip while we're trying to solve this murder mystery?"

"It doesn't hurt to be prepared," Gabe answered sulkily, "It makes me feel better to have all this stuff with me just in case I need it."

"If you're going to bring a bloody comfort blanket, next time make it something a little lighter," she responded.

"Well, it's this comfort blanket that allowed us to figure out the first clue," Gabe was really getting annoyed after that last jibe, "I'd never have seen the symbol or found you otherwise, and then we'd never know anything about it."

"And we'd never have gone to Cambridge and seen Jane," Saphy added, "And she'd probably still be alive. That's where your comfort camera has got us. You've got an innocent woman killed. A woman who never did anything but try and teach and support people on their way in the world!"

Gabe had no comeback for this and, fortunately for him, he did not try to come up with one. A part of him felt that maybe Saphy was right, that he should feel guilt for Professor Cavendish's death, that he had blood on his hands. Equally, he began to understand how shaken up Saphy was by it, how much she had valued Professor Cavendish as a friend and mentor.

Nobody close to Gabe had ever died, he did not have enough people close to him for that to be that likely, so he knew he had no real words of comfort to offer her. He knew, equally, that she would be in no mood to accept any comfort he might tentatively offer and he had no desire to be on the end of another angry tirade. So, they once more sat in silence until they got into France and a customs official had to check their passports.

As they handed the documents over, Gabe felt panic rising up inside him. He had tried to block the thought out all through the journey, but he was starting to wonder now whether the police might really have told customs officials not to take his passport, not to let him into their country. He was, after all, a murder suspect, he told himself. That wave of fear grew bigger and bigger as the official spent significantly longer looking at his and Saphy's passports than he had any of the other passengers'. Finally he turned to Gabe and held up one of the passports.

"Is this you?" he questioned.

Gabe looked at the document in his hand and didn't know whether to laugh or be offended. The picture showed a pretty teenage girl. She was probably about fifteen or sixteen with smooth, straight shoulder length brown hair and soft smooth skin, dressed in a conservative looking blouse and with a rather sweet smile. Even though the printed letters beside the photograph read "Persephone Cross", Gabe was having a little trouble reconciling the girl in the picture with the prickly punk beside him. Obviously the passport inspector was having a similar trouble.

"No it bloody well isn't," Saphy came in, as ever when talking to anyone official her naturally upper-class accent became more pronounced and commanding, "Does he look like a girl to you?"

"I think he's more thinking that she doesn't look any more like you than she does me," Gabe pointed to the photo, smirking.

Finally, the official returned their passports and Gabe was able to relax. In fact, the sight of a totally different Saphy in her passport photo had made him feel quite a lot better, although it had done little to improve her mood.

"Don't ever mention this again," she hissed angrily, after the official had moved onto the next people.

"I just can't believe you ever looked like that," Gabe smiled.

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