Read The Alchemist's Secret Online

Authors: Scott Mariani

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

The Alchemist's Secret (2 page)

‘I’m sorry,’ said the voice on the other end of the line. A man’s voice, clipped English accent. ‘Have I got the right number? I’m looking for a Mr Benjamin Hope.’ The voice had a note of disapproval that irked Ben immediately despite his fuzzy head.

He coughed again, wiped his face with the back of his hand and tried to unglue his eyes. ‘Benedict,’ he muttered, then cleared his throat and spoke more clearly. ‘That’s
Benedict
Hope. Speaking…What time do you call
this
?’ he added irritably.

The voice sounded even more displeased, as though its impression of Ben had just been confirmed. ‘Well, ten-thirty actually.’

Ben sank his head into his hand. He looked at his watch. Sunlight was shining through the gap in the curtains. He began to focus. ‘OK. Sorry. I had a busy night.’

‘Evidently.’

‘Can I help you?’ Ben said sharply.

‘Mr Hope, my name is Alexander Villiers. I’m calling on behalf of my employer Mr Sebastian Fairfax. I’ve been instructed to tell you that Mr Fairfax would like to retain your services.’ A pause.
‘Apparently
you’re one of the very best private detectives.’

‘Then you’ve been misinformed. I’m not a detective. I find lost people.’

The voice went on. ‘Mr Fairfax would like to see you. Can we arrange an appointment? Naturally, we’ll collect you and pay you for your trouble.’

Ben sat up straight against the oak headboard and reached for his Gauloises and Zippo. He trapped the pack between his knees and plucked a cigarette out. He thumbed the wheel of the lighter and lit up. ‘Sorry, I’m not available. I’ve just finished an assignment and I’m taking a break.’

‘I understand,’ said Villiers. ‘I’m also instructed to inform you that Mr Fairfax is willing to offer a generous fee.’

‘It’s not the money.’

‘Then perhaps I should tell you that this is a matter of life or death. We’ve been told you may be our only chance. Won’t you at least come and meet Mr Fairfax? When you hear what he has to say, you may change your mind.’

Ben hesitated.

‘Thank you for agreeing,’ said Villiers after a pause. ‘Please expect to be picked up in the next few hours. Goodbye.’

‘Hold on. Where?’

‘We know where you are, Mr Hope.’

Ben went for his daily run along the deserted beach, with just the water and a few circling, screeching seabirds for company. The whispering ocean was calm, and the sun was cooler now that autumn was on its way.

After his mile or so up and down the smooth sand, his hangover just a faint echo, he picked a path down to the rocky cove that was his favourite part of the beach. Nobody ever came here except him. He was a man who liked solitude, even though his job was seeking to reunite people with those they’d lost. This was where he liked to come sometimes when he wasn’t away working. It was a place where he could forget everything, where the world and all its troubles could slip out of his mind for a few precious moments. Even the house was out of sight, hidden behind the steep bank of clay and boulders and tufty grass. He cared little for the six-bedroomed house-it was far too large for just him and Winnie, his elderly housekeeper-and he had only bought it because it came complete with this quarter mile stretch of private beach, his sanctuary.

He sat on the same big, flat, barnacled rock as he always did, and idly flung a handful of pebbles one by one into the sea as the tide lapped and hissed at the shingle around him. With his blue eyes narrowed against the sun he watched the curving drop of a stone against the sky, and the little white splash it made as it disappeared into the roll of an incoming wave.
Nice going, Hope
, he thought to himself.
It took that stone a thousand years to reach the shore, and now you’ve thrown it back.
He lit another cigarette and gazed out to sea, the gentle salt breeze stirring his blond hair.

After a while he reluctantly got up, jumped down off his rock and made his way back up towards the house. He found Winnie pottering about in the huge kitchen, making him some lunch. ‘I’m going to be leaving in a couple of hours, Win. Don’t fix me anything special.’

Winnie turned and looked at him. ‘But you only got back yesterday. Where are you off to this time?’

‘I’ve no idea.’

‘How long will you be away?’

‘I don’t know that either.’

‘Well you’d better eat something,’ she said firmly. ‘Running about all the time, never in one place long enough to draw a breath.’ She sighed and shook her head.

Winnie had been a faithful and stalwart companion to the Hope family for many years. For a long time now, Ben had been the only one left. After his father had died, he’d sold the family home and moved out here to the west coast of Ireland. Winnie had followed. More than just a housekeeper, she felt like a mother to him-an anxious, often exasperated, but always patient and devoted mother.

She abandoned the cooked lunch she’d started making for him and quickly prepared a pile of ham sandwiches. Ben sat at the kitchen table and munched a couple of them, far away in his thoughts.

Winnie left him and carried on her other chores around the house. There wasn’t much for her to do. Ben was hardly ever there, and when he did come home she would barely notice his presence. He never talked about his work, but she knew enough about it to know that it was dangerous. That worried her. She worried about the drinking, too, and the cases of whisky that arrived a little too regularly by van. She’d never spoken of it openly to him, but she fretted that, one way or another, he was going to put himself in an early grave. Only the good Lord knew which one would get him first, whisky or a bullet. Her greatest fear was, she didn’t think it mattered to him either way.

If he could just find something to care for, she thought.
Someone
to care for. He kept his private life a closely guarded secret, but she knew that the few times a woman had tried to get close to him, to make him love her, he’d cut her off and let her drift away. He’d never brought anyone back to the house, and many phone calls had gone unanswered. They always stopped phoning in the end. He was afraid to love anyone. It was as though he’d killed that part of himself, hollowed himself out emotionally, made himself empty inside.

She could still remember him as a youngster full of bright optimism and dreams, with something to believe in, something to give him strength that didn’t come out of a bottle. That had been a long, long time ago. Before
it
happened. She sighed at the memory of those terrible times. Had they ever really ended? She was the only person, other than Ben himself, who understood what it was that secretly drove him. Knew the pain that was in his heart.

4

The private jet carried him over the Irish Sea and southwards towards the Sussex coast. It touched down at an airfield, where they were met by a sleek black Bentley Arnage limousine. Ben was ushered into the back of the car by the same anonymous men in grey suits who’d collected him from his home that afternoon and sat with him on the plane, grim-faced and taciturn. The two men climbed into a black Jaguar Sovereign that sat on the tarmac with its engine purring, waiting for the Bentley to move off.

Settling into the plush cream leather interior of the Bentley, Ben ignored the on-board cocktail cabinet, took out his battered steel hip-flask and swallowed down a mouthful of whisky. As he slipped the flask back in his pocket, he noticed that the eyes of the uniformed driver had been watching him in the mirror.

They drove for about forty minutes. The Jaguar followed all the way. Ben watched the road-signs and took note of the route, orientating himself. After a few miles of dual carriageway the Bentley headed cross-country, speeding at a smooth whisper through empty country roads. A village flashed past. Eventually the car turned off a quiet country lane and drew up at an archway in a high stone wall. The Jag pulled up behind. Automatic gates, black and gilt, swung open to let the cars through. The Bentley rolled down a winding private road, past a terrace of estate cottages. Ben turned to watch as some fine-looking horses galloped by in a white-fenced paddock. When he looked back at the rear window, the Jaguar had vanished.

The road continued, with neat formal gardens on either side. Down an alley of stately cypress trees the house appeared before them, a Georgian mansion fronted by a sweep of stone steps and classical columns.

Ben wondered what his prospective client did for a living. The house looked as though it must be worth at least seven or eight million. This would probably turn out to be another K&R job, as was the case with the vast majority of his wealthier clients. Kidnap and ransom had become one of the world’s fastest expanding businesses these days. In some countries, the K&R industry had even overtaken heroin.

The Bentley passed a large ornamental fountain and drew up at the foot of the steps. Ben didn’t wait for the driver to open the door for him. A man came down the steps to greet him. ‘I’m Alexander Villiers, Mr Fairfax’s PA. We spoke on the phone.’

Ben only nodded, and studied Villiers. He looked to be in his mid-forties or thereabouts. His hair was slick and greying at the temples. He was wearing a crisp navy blazer and a tie with what looked like a college or public school emblem.

‘So glad you came,’ Villiers said. ‘Mr Fairfax is waiting for you upstairs.’

Ben was led through a large marble-floored entrance hall that was wide enough to accommodate a medium-sized aircraft, and up a wide curving staircase to a wood-panelled corridor lined with paintings and glass display cabinets. Villiers guided him wordlessly down the long corridor and stopped at a doorway. He knocked, and a resonant voice inside called ‘Come in’.

Villiers showed Ben into a study. Sunlight streamed brightly in through a leaded bow window that was flanked by heavy velvet drapes. The smell of leather and furniture polish hung in the air.

The man sitting at the broad desk stood up as Ben entered the study. He was tall and slender in a dark suit, a mane of white hair swept back from his high forehead. Ben put his age at around seventy-five, though he looked fit and upright.

‘Mr Hope, sir,’ said Villiers, and departed, closing the heavy doors behind him. The tall man approached Ben from behind the desk, extending his hand. His grey eyes were quick and penetrating. ‘Mr Hope, I am Sebastian Fairfax,’ he said warmly. ‘Thank you so much for having agreed to come all this way, and at such short notice.’

They shook hands. ‘Please, take a seat,’ said Fairfax. ‘May I offer you a drink?’ He approached a cabinet to his left, and took up a cut-crystal decanter. Ben reached into his jacket pocket and brought out his old flask, unscrewing the top. ‘I see you’ve brought your own,’ said Fairfax. ‘A resourceful man.’

Ben drank, aware that Fairfax was watching him keenly. He knew what the old man was thinking. ‘It doesn’t affect my work,’ he said, screwing the top back on.

‘I’m sure,’ said Fairfax. He sat down behind the desk. ‘Now, shall we get straight to business?’

‘That would be fine.’

Fairfax leaned back in his chair, pursing his lips. ‘You’re a man who finds people.’

‘I try,’ Ben replied.

Fairfax pursed his lips and continued. ‘I have someone I want you to find. It’s an assignment for a specialist. Your background is highly impressive.’

‘Go on.’

‘I’m looking for a man by the name of Fulcanelli. It’s an extremely important matter and I need a professional of your talents to locate him.’

‘Fulcanelli. Does he have a first name?’ Ben asked.

‘Fulcanelli is a pseudonym. Nobody knows his true identity.’

‘That’s a help. So I take it that this man isn’t an especially close friend of yours, a missing family member or anything like that?’ Ben smiled coldly. ‘My clients normally know the people they want me to find.’

‘That’s correct, he isn’t.’

‘So, what’s the connection? What do you want him for? Has he stolen something from you? That’s a matter for the police, not me.’

‘No, nothing like that,’ said Fairfax with a dismissive gesture. ‘I have no ill will towards Fulcanelli. On the contrary, he means a great deal to me.’

‘OK. Can you tell me when this person was last seen, and where?’

‘Fulcanelli was last sighted in Paris, as far as I’ve been able to trace,’ Fairfax said. ‘As to
when
he was last seen…’ He paused. ‘It was some time ago.’

‘That always makes things harder. What are we talking about, more than, say, two years?’

‘A little longer than that.’

‘Five? Ten?’

‘Mr Hope, the last known sighting of Fulcanelli was in 1926.’

Ben stared at him. He did a quick calculation. ‘That was more than eighty years ago. Are we talking about some child abduction case?’

‘He wasn’t an infant,’ stated Fairfax with a calm smile. ‘Fulcanelli was a man of some eighty years at the time of his sudden disappearance.’

Ben narrowed his eyes. ‘Is this some kind of joke? I’ve come a long way, and frankly-‘

‘I assure you I’m perfectly serious,’ replied Fairfax. ‘I’m not a humorous man. I repeat, I would like you to find Fulcanelli for me.’

‘I look for people who are living,’ Ben said. ‘I’m not interested in searching for departed spirits. If you want that, you need to call the parapsychology institute and they could send one of their ghostbusters out to you.’

Fairfax smiled. ‘I appreciate your scepticism. However, there
is
reason to believe that Fulcanelli is alive. But perhaps we need to narrow the focus here. My main interest isn’t so much the man himself, but certain knowledge of which he is, or was, in possession. Information of a crucially important nature, which I and my agents have so far failed to locate.’

‘Information of what sort?’ Ben asked.

‘The information is contained within a document, a precious manuscript to be precise. I want you to locate and bring me back the Fulcanelli manuscript.’

Ben pursed his lips. ‘Has there been some misunderstanding here? Your man Villiers told me this was a matter of life and death.’

‘It is,’ Fairfax replied.

‘I don’t follow you. What information are we talking about?’

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