Read The Alchemist's Secret Online

Authors: Scott Mariani

Tags: #Adventure, #Mystery, #Crime, #Suspense, #Thriller, #Contemporary

The Alchemist's Secret (10 page)

‘I’ll get you another,’ he said, limping towards it.

‘Damn right you’ll get me another,’ she went on. ‘And I think you owe me an explanation as well.’

After a few twists of the key the 2CV engine coughed into life, making a terminal-sounding clanking noise. Roberta turned the car round, its wheels grinding against the buckled wings, and drove away. As they gained speed, the rubbing of tyres on metal rose to a tortured howl, and the wind whistled around them through the broken windscreen. The engine was overheating badly and acrid smoke began to pour from under the mangled bonnet.

‘I can’t go far in this,’ she shouted over the blast of wind, peering out of the shattered glass into the darkness.

‘Just get it down the road some way,’ he shouted back. ‘I think I saw a bar back there.’

15

The Citroën managed to see them as far as the quiet roadside bar before it finally expired from a pierced radiator. Roberta gave it a last sad look as they left it in a shadowy corner of the car park and walked in, past a couple of motorcycles and a few cars and under the flickering red glow of the neon sign over the doorway.

The bar-room was mostly empty. A couple of longhaired bikers were playing pool and laughing raucously in the back, drinking beer straight from the bottle.

They said little as they took a corner table away from the hard-rock blare of the jukebox. Ben went over to the bar and came back a minute later with a bottle of cheap red wine and two glasses. He poured a glass out for each of them and slid hers across the stained tabletop. She took a gulp and closed her eyes. ‘Boy, what a day. So what’s
your
story?’

He shrugged. ‘I was just waiting for a train.’

‘You nearly caught one, too.’

‘I noticed. Thanks for stepping in.’

‘Don’t thank me. Just tell me what’s happening and why we’ve suddenly become so popular.’

‘We?’

‘Yeah,
we’
, she said hotly, stabbing the table with her finger. ‘Since I first had the pleasure of meeting you earlier today, I’ve had intruders trying to kill me, friends turning out to be enemies, dead men disappearing from my apartment and asshole cops who think I’m a whacko.’

He listened carefully and with growing apprehension as she told him all that had happened during the last few hours. ‘And to cap it all,’ she finished, ‘I almost get mashed by a train rescuing your ass.’ She paused. ‘I take it you didn’t get my message,’ she added indignantly.

‘What message?’

‘Maybe you should keep your phone switched on.’

He gave a sour laugh as he remembered he’d turned it off during their interview earlier on. He pulled the mobile out of his pocket and activated it. ‘Message,’ he groaned as the little envelope logo flashed up on his screen.

‘Nice going, Sherlock,’ she said. ‘Then it’s just as well that when you didn’t call back, I decided to come and warn you in person. Though I’m beginning to wonder why I bothered.’

He frowned. ‘How did you know where to find me?’

‘Remember? I was
there
when you got the call from-‘

‘Loriot.’

‘Whatever. Charming friends you have. Anyway, I remembered you mentioned you were going to Brignancourt tonight, figured I might catch up with you there if I wasn’t too late.’ She looked at him hard. ‘So are you going to tell me what’s going on, Ben? Do
Sunday Times
journalists always live such exciting lives?’

‘Sounds like you had a more exciting day than me.’

‘Cut the bullshit. You have something to do with all this, don’t you?’

He was silent.

‘Well? Don’t you? Come on. Am I supposed to think it’s all a coincidence that you turn up asking questions about my work, and we’re being photographed, and someone tries to kill us both on the same day? I don’t buy this journalist thing. Who are you, really?’

He refilled both their glasses. His cigarette was finished. He tossed the stub out of the window. Reached for his Zippo and lit another.

She coughed when the smoke drifted across the table towards her. ‘Do you
have
to do that?’

‘Yes.’

‘It’s banned.’

‘Like I give a shit,’ he said.

‘So are you going to tell me the truth-or do I just call the cops?’

‘You think they’ll believe you this time?’

The train driver’s heart was still in his mouth as he drove on down the line. By the time his lights had picked out the two cars in his path, it would have been too late to do anything about it. He breathed deeply.
Jesus.
He’d never had anything more than a deer on the line before. He didn’t like to think what might have happened if the cars hadn’t got out of the way in time.

What kind of idiot would drive under the level-crossing barrier with a train coming? Kids, probably, messing about with stolen cars. The driver let out a long sigh as his heart rate eased back down to normal, and then he reached for his radio handset.

‘Oh, fuck.’

‘Told
you we should’ve hung around.’

The three men sat in the Audi overlooking the railway line where they’d left the Mercedes earlier on. Naudon shot his colleagues a caustic glare and settled back in his seat. While Berger and Godard had been sitting giggling in the bar, he’d been listening to the radio. If there’d been a train crash it would’ve been mentioned. Nothing-so he’d kept going on about it to the others until they eventually relented, just to shut him up.

And he’d been right. No wreckage, no derailed train, no dead Englishman. The empty Merc was sitting a few metres from the track, and it certainly didn’t look like a car that had been hit by a fast-moving train.

Worse, it wasn’t alone. Its dark bodywork reflected the spinning blue lights of two police patrol cars parked either side of it.

‘This is fucking bad,’ Berger breathed, gripping the wheel.

‘Thought you said the cops never came out this way,’ said Godard. ‘That was the whole fucking
point
of this spot, wasn’t it?’

‘Told you,’ Naudon repeated from the back.

‘How did-‘

‘Well, boys, the boss isn’t going to be pleased.’

‘Better call him.’

‘I’m not doing it.
You
do it.’

The police officers combed the scene, torch beams darting this way and that like searchlights while radios popped and fizzled in the background. ‘Eh, Jean-Paul,’ said one, holding up a cracked Citroën grille badge he’d found lying in the dirt. ‘Bits of headlamp glass all over the place here,’ he added.

‘Train driver mentioned a Citroën 2CV,’ replied another.

‘Where’d it go?’

‘Not far, that’s for sure. Coolant everywhere.’

Two more officers were casting pools of torchlight around the inside of the limo. One of them spotted a small shiny object lying in the rear footwell. He took a ballpoint pen out of his pocket and used it to pick up the empty cartridge case. ‘Hello, what’s this? Nine-mil shell case.’ He sniffed at it, getting the scent of cordite. ‘Recently fired.’

‘Bag that.’

Another cop had found something, a business card lying on the seat. squinted at it in the glow of his Maglite. ‘Some foreign name.’

‘What d’you reckon happened here?’

‘Who knows?’

Twenty minutes later the police tow-truck arrived. By the swirl of blue and orange lights the battered Mercedes was hitched up and taken away, a police car in front and another bringing up the rear. The railway tracks were left in silent darkness.

16

Rome

The two men who had come for Giuseppe Ferraro at his home that night and driven him out of the city now escorted him up the grand stairway to the dome of the Renaissance villa. They had barely said a word to him all the way. They hadn’t needed to-Ferraro knew what this was about, and why the archbishop had sent for him. His knees were a little weak as he was shown into the dome and the door shut behind him. The enormous room was unlit apart from the starlight and moonbeams that streamed in through the many windows around its circumference.

Massimiliano Usberti was standing at a desk at the far end. He slowly turned to face Ferraro.

‘Archbishop, I can explain.’ Ferraro had been working on his story ever since the call had come through from Paris earlier that evening. He’d been expecting that Usberti would summon him to the villa-just not this soon. He began blurting out his excuses. He’d hired idiots who had let him down. It wasn’t his fault that the Englishman had got away. He was sorry, so sorry, and it wouldn’t happen again.

Usberti walked towards him across the room. He raised his hand in a gesture that silenced Ferraro’s frantic stream of apologies and excuses. ‘Giuseppe, Giuseppe-you do not need to explain,’ he said with a smile, putting his arm around the younger man’s shoulders. ‘We are all human. We all make mistakes. God forgives.’

Ferraro was amazed. This wasn’t the reception he’d expected. The archbishop led him over to a moonlit window. ‘What a glorious night,’ he murmured. ‘Do you not think so, my friend?’

‘...Yes, Archbishop, it is beautiful.’

‘Does it not make one feel so happy to be alive?’

‘It does, Archbishop.’

‘It is a privilege to live on God’s earth.’

They stood looking out of the window at the inky-black night sky. The stars were out in their millions, the moon was crystal-sharp and the Milky Way galaxy arched glittering and pearly over the Roman hills.

After a few minutes, Ferraro asked, ‘Archbishop, may I have your permission to leave now?’

Usberti patted him on the shoulder. ‘Of course. But before you go, I would like to introduce you to a good friend of mine.’

‘I am honoured, Archbishop.’

‘I called you here so that you could meet him. His name is Franco Bozza.’

Ferraro almost collapsed with shock at the words. ‘Bozza! The Inquisitor?’ Suddenly his heart was thudding at the base of his throat, his mouth was dry and he felt sick.

‘I see you have heard of my friend before,’ Usberti said. ‘He is going to take care of you now.’

‘What? But Archbishop, I…’ Ferraro fell on his knees. ‘I implore you…’

‘He awaits you downstairs,’ Usberti replied, pressing a buzzer on his desk. As Ferraro was dragged away screaming by the two men who had brought him, the archbishop crossed himself and muttered a prayer in Latin for the man’s soul.
‘In nomine patris et filii et spiritus sancti, ego te absolve…

17

‘So where to now?’ asked Roberta as the taxi arrived to pick them up from the bar.

‘Well, you’re going home for a start,’ Ben replied.

‘Are you kidding? I’m not going back there.’

‘What’s your assistant’s address?’

‘What do you want that for?’ she asked, getting into the car.

‘I want to ask him a few questions.’

‘And you think I’m not coming along too? I have a few questions I’d like to ask that son of a bitch.’

‘You should stay out of this,’ he said to her. He took out his wallet.

‘What are you doing?’ she asked as he counted out banknotes.

He held out the money, offering it to her. ‘There’s enough here for you to check in at a decent hotel tonight and fly back to the States in the morning. Take it’

She looked down at the notes, then shook her head and pushed them away. ‘Listen, pal, I’m just as involved in this as you are. I want to find out what the hell’s going on. And don’t get any ideas about giving me the slip.’ Before he could reply she slid forward across the car seat and told the taxi driver an address in the tenth arrondissement of Paris. The driver muttered something under his breath and drove off.

As they arrived at Michel’s place, they found the street illuminated with blue flashing lights. An ambulance and a number of police cars were parked outside the apartment building, and crowds were milling about the entrance. Ben asked the taxi driver to wait, and he and Roberta pushed through the crowd.

People from nearby bars had gathered in groups on the pavement, watching, pointing, covering their mouths in shock. A team of paramedics were pushing a stretcher on a trolley from the entrance to Michel’s building. They weren’t in a hurry. The body on the stretcher was draped from head to foot in a white sheet. Where the sheet lay over the figure’s face, a huge bloody stain seeped through the cloth. They loaded the stretcher into the back of the ambulance and shut the doors.

‘What happened here?’ Ben asked a gendarme.

‘Suicide,’ the cop replied tersely. ‘A neighbour heard the shot.’

‘Was it a young guy called Michel Zardi?’ Roberta asked. Somehow she just knew.

‘You knew him?’ said the policeman unemotionally. ‘Go through, mademoiselle. The chief might want to speak to you.’

Roberta headed towards the entrance. Ben took her wrist. ‘Let’s get away from here,’ he warned. ‘There’s nothing you can do.’

She tore her arm out of his grasp. ‘I want to know,’ she retorted, and she pressed on ahead of him, through the police tape and in the door. He followed, cursing. A crowd of police blocked his way. ‘What a mess,’ one officer was saying to another. ‘Even the guy’s own mother wouldn’t recognize him. Blew his whole face right off.’

Amongst the uniformed officers, a small fat lieutenant in plain clothes was giving orders. He glared at Roberta as she approached him. ‘You from the press? Piss off, nothing to see here.’

Are you the officer in charge?’ she demanded. ‘I’m Dr Roberta Ryder, Michel is my-‘ She checked herself.
‘Was
my employee. It was his body they just took out of here, wasn’t it?’

‘We were just passing by,’ Ben cut in, catching up with her. In English he muttered in her ear, ‘Let’s keep this short and simple, OK?’

And your name, monsieur?’ the plain-clothes policeman asked, swivelling his dour gaze towards him.

Ben hesitated. If he gave a false name, Roberta’s reaction would give him away.

‘His name’s Ben Hope,’ she filled in for him, and he winced inwardly. ‘Listen,’ she went on in a loud, adamant voice, looking the lieutenant in the eye. ‘Michel didn’t kill himself. He’s been murdered.’

‘Madame sees murders everywhere,’ someone said behind them, and they turned. Roberta’s heart sank as she recognized the man coming into the room. It was the young police inspector from earlier that day.

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