Authors: Scott Mariani
Tags: #Adventure, #Mystery, #Crime, #Suspense, #Thriller, #Contemporary
Fairfax smiled sadly. ‘I’ll explain. Mr Hope, I have a granddaughter. Her name is Ruth.’
Ben hoped his reaction to the name didn’t show.
‘Ruth is nine years old, Mr Hope,’ Fairfax continued, ‘and I fear she will never see her tenth birthday. She suffers from a rare type of cancer. Her mother, my daughter, despairs of her recovery. So do the top private medical experts, who, despite all the funds I have at my disposal, have been unable to reverse the course of this terrible illness.’ Fairfax reached out a slender hand. On his desk facing him was a photograph in a gold frame. He turned it around to show Ben. The photograph showed a little blonde girl, all smiles and happiness, sitting astride a pony.
‘Needless to say,’ Fairfax went on, ‘this picture was taken some time ago, before the disease was detected. She doesn’t look like that any more. They’ve sent her home to die.’
‘I’m sorry to hear that,’ Ben said. ‘But I don’t understand what this has to do with-‘
‘With the Fulcanelli manuscript? It has everything to do with it. I believe that the Fulcanelli manuscript holds vital information, ancient knowledge that could save the life of my beloved Ruth. Could bring her back to us and restore her to what she was in that picture.’
‘Ancient knowledge? What kind of ancient know ledge?’
Fairfax gave a grim smile. ‘Mr Hope, Fulcanelli was-and still is, as I believe-an alchemist.’
There was a heavy silence. Fairfax studied Ben’s face intently.
Ben looked down at his hands for a few moments. He sighed. ‘What are you saying, that this manuscript will show you how to make some kind of…some kind of life-saving potion?’
‘An alchemical elixir,’ Fairfax said. ‘Fulcanelli knew its secret.’
‘Look, Mr Fairfax. I understand how painful your situation is,’ Ben said, measuring his words. ‘I can sympathize with you. It’s easy to want to believe that some secret remedy could work miracles. But a man of your intellect…don’t you think perhaps you’re deluding yourself? I mean,
Wouldn’t it be better to look for more expert medical advice? Perhaps some new form of treatment, some modern technology…’
Fairfax shook his head. ‘I’ve told you, everything that can be done, according to modern science, has been done. I’ve looked at every possibility. Believe me, I’ve researched this subject in extreme depth and am not taking the matter lightly…there is more in the book of science than present-day experts would have us believe.’ He paused. ‘Mr Hope, I’m a proud man. I have been extraordinarily successful in my life and I wield a very considerable amount of influence. Yet you see me here as a sad old grandfather. I would get down on my knees to beg you to help me-to help Ruth-if I thought that could persuade you. You may think my quest is a folly, but for the love of God and the sake of that dear sweet child, won’t you indulge an old man and accept my offer? What have you got to lose? We’re the ones who stand to lose a great deal, if our Ruth doesn’t survive.’
‘I know you have no family or children of your own, Mr Hope,’ Fairfax went on. ‘Perhaps only a father, or a grandfather, can really understand what it means to see one’s dear offspring suffer or die. No parent should have to endure that torture.’ He looked Ben in the eye with an unwavering gaze. ‘Find the Fulcanelli manuscript, Mr Hope. I believe you can. I’ll pay you a fee of one million pounds sterling, one quarter of that sum in advance, and the balance on safe delivery of the manuscript.’ He opened a drawer of the desk, took out a slip of paper and slid it across the polished wood surface. Ben picked it up. The cheque was for £250,000 and made out in his name.
‘It only requires my signature,’ Fairfax said quietly. ‘And the money’s yours.’
Ben stood up, still holding the cheque. Fairfax watched him intently as he walked to the window and looked out across the sweeping estate at the gently swaying trees. He was quiet for a minute, and then he breathed out audibly through his nose and turned slowly to Fairfax. ‘This isn’t what I do. I locate missing people.’
‘I’m asking you to save the life of a child. Does it matter how that’s accomplished?’
‘You’re asking me to go on a wild goose chase that you
can save her.’ He tossed the cheque back across Fairfax’s desk. ‘But I don’t see how it can. I’m sorry, Mr Fairfax. Thanks for your offer, but I’m not interested. Now, I’d like your driver to take me back to the airfield.’
In a large open field full of wild flowers and gently swaying lush grass, a teenage boy and a little girl were running, laughing, hand in hand. Their blond hair was golden in the sunshine. The boy let go of the little girl’s hand and dropped to his knees to pick a flower. Giggling, she ran on ahead, looking back at him with her nose crinkled in mischief and freckled cheeks rosy. The boy held out the flower to her, and suddenly she was standing far away. Beside her was a gateway, leading to a high-walled maze.
‘Ruth!’ he called to her. ‘Come back!’ The little girl cupped her hands around her mouth, shouted ‘Come and find me!’ and disappeared, grinning, through the gate.
The boy ran after her, but something was wrong. The distance between him and the maze kept stretching further and further. He shouted ‘Don’t go, Ruth, don’t leave me behind!’ He ran and ran, but now the ground under his feet wasn’t grass any more but sand, deep soft sand into which he sank and stumbled.
Then a tall man in flowing white robes was blocking his way. The boy’s head only reached as high as the man’s waist, and he felt small and powerless. He got around the man and made it to the entrance of the maze just in time to see Ruth flitting away into the distance. She wasn’t laughing any more, but crying out in fear as she vanished around a corner. Their eyes met a last time. Then she was gone.
Now there were other tall men in white robes, with black beards. They crowded round him and towered over him, blocking his way and his sight, jabbering at him in a language he couldn’t understand, eyes round and white in mahogany faces that loomed close up to him, grinning with gaps in their teeth. And then they grabbed hold of his arms and shoulders with powerful hands and held him back and he was shouting and yelling and struggling but there were more and more of them and he was pinned and couldn’t move…
He gripped the glass tightly in his hand and felt the burn of the whisky against his tongue. In the distance, beyond the heaving dark grey waves that crashed against the rocks of the bay, the arc of the horizon was slowly lightening to red with the dawn.
He turned away from the window as he heard the door open behind him. ‘Morning, Win,’ he said, managing a smile. ‘What are you doing up so early?’
She looked at him with concern, her eye flickering to the glass in his hand and the empty bottle on the table behind him. ‘Thought I heard voices. Everything all right, Ben?’
‘I couldn’t get back to sleep.’
‘Bad dreams again?’ she asked knowingly.
He nodded. Winnie sighed. Picked up the worn old photograph that he’d been looking at earlier and had left lying on the table next to the whisky bottle. ‘Wasn’t she beautiful?’ the old lady whispered, shaking her head and biting her lip.
‘I miss her so badly, Winnie. After all these years.’
‘You think I don’t know that?’ she replied, looking up at him. ‘I miss them all.’ She laid the picture down carefully on the table.
He raised the glass again, and drained it quickly.
Winnie frowned. ‘Ben, this drinking-‘
‘Don’t lecture me, Win.’
‘I’ve never said a word to you before,’ she replied firmly. ‘But you’re just getting worse. What’s wrong, Ben? Since you came back from seeing that man you’ve been acting restless, not eating. You’ve hardly slept the last three nights. I’m worried about you. Look at you-you’re pale. And I know you only opened that bottle last night.’
He smiled a little, leaned across and kissed her forehead. ‘I’m sorry if I snapped. I don’t mean to worry you, Win. I know I’m hard to live with.’
‘What did he want from you, anyway?’
‘Fairfax?’ Ben turned towards the window and looked back out to sea, watching as the rising sun touched the undersides of the clouds with gold. ‘He wanted me…he wanted me to save Ruth,’ he said, and wished that his glass weren’t empty.
He waited until just before nine, then he picked up the phone.
‘You’re reconsidering my offer?’ Fairfax said.
‘You haven’t found anyone else?’
‘In that case, I’ll take the job.’
Ben arrived early for his rendezvous at the Oxford Union Society. Like many old students of the university he was a life member of the venerable institution that nestles off the Cornmarket and has served for centuries as a meeting-place, debating hall and members-only club. As he’d done in his student days, he avoided the grand entrance and went in the back way, down a narrow alley next to Cornmarket’s McDonald’s restaurant. He flashed his tatty old membership card at the desk and walked through the hallowed corridors for the first time in nearly twenty years.
It seemed strange to be back here. He’d never thought he would set foot in this place again, or even in this city again, with all the dark memories it held for him-memories of a life once planned, and of the life that fortune had made for him instead.
Professor Rose hadn’t yet arrived as Ben entered the Union’s old library. Nothing had changed. He gazed around him at the dark wood panelling, reading tables and high galleries of leather-bound books. Up above, the frescoed ceiling with its small rose windows and priceless Arthurian legend murals dominated the magnificent room.
‘Benedict!’ called a voice from behind him. He turned to see Jonathan Rose, stouter, greyer and balder but instantly recognizable as the history don he’d known so long ago, striding happily across the burnished floorboards to shake his hand. ‘How are you, Professor? It’s been a long time.’
They settled in a pair of the library’s worn leather armchairs, and exchanged small-talk for a few minutes. Little had changed for the professor-Oxford academic life went on much as it had always done. ‘I was a little surprised to hear from you after all these years, Benedict. To what do I owe this pleasure?’
Ben explained his purpose in asking to meet him. ‘And then I remembered that I knew one of the country’s top ancient history scholars.’
‘Just don’t call me an
, as most of my students do.’ Rose smiled. ‘So, you’re interested in alchemy, are you?’ He raised his eyebrows and peered at Ben over his glasses. ‘Didn’t think that sort of stuff was your cup of tea. You haven’t become one of those New Age types, I hope?’
Ben laughed. ‘I’m a writer these days. I’m just doing some research.’
‘Writer? Good, good. What did you say this fellow’s name was-Fracasini?’
Rose shook his head. ‘Can’t say I’ve ever heard of him. I’m not really the man to help you there. Bit of a far out subject for most of us fuddy-duddy academics-even in this post-Harry Potter age.’
Ben felt a pang of disappointment. He hadn’t entertained high hopes that Jon Rose would have much to offer him on Fulcanelli, let alone on a Fulcanelli manuscript, but with so little to go on it was a shame to lose any potential source of dependable information. ‘Is there anything you can tell me generally about alchemy?’ he asked.
‘As I say, it’s not my field,’ Rose replied. ‘Like most people, I’d be inclined to dismiss it all as complete hocus pocus.’ He smiled. ‘Though it has to be said that few esoteric cults have endured so well over the centuries. All the way from ancient Egypt and China, right through the Dark Ages and medieval times and onwards into the Renaissance-it’s a sub-current that keeps resurfacing all throughout history.’ The professor stretched back in the worn leather chair as he spoke, adopting the tutor pose that was second nature to him. ‘Though heaven knows what they were up to, or
they were up to-turning lead into gold, creating magical potions, elixirs of life, and all the rest of it.’
‘I take it you don’t believe in the possibility of an alchemical elixir that could cure the sick?’
Rose frowned, noticing Ben’s deadpan expression and wondering where he was going with this. ‘I think that if they’d developed a magic remedy for plague, pox, cholera, typhus, and all the other diseases that have ravaged us through history, we’d have known about it.’ He shrugged. ‘The problem is it’s all so speculative. Nobody really knows what the alchemists might have discovered. Alchemy’s famous for its inscrutability-all that cloak-and-dagger stuff, secret brotherhoods, riddles and codes and supposed hidden knowledge. Personally I don’t think there was much substance to any of it.’
‘Why all the obscurity?’ Ben asked, thinking of the reading he’d been doing over the last couple of days, running Internet searches on terms like ‘ancient know ledge’ and ‘secrets of alchemy’ and wading through one esoteric website after another. He’d turned up a wide variety of alchemical writings, ranging from the present day back to the fourteenth century. They all shared the same baffling and grandiose language, the same dark air of secrecy. He hadn’t been able to decide how much of it was genuine and how much was just esoteric posturing for the benefit of the credulous devotees they’d been attracting over the centuries.
‘If I wanted to be cynical I’d say it was because they didn’t actually
anything worth revealing,’ Rose grinned. ‘But you’ve also got to remember that alchemists had powerful enemies, and perhaps some of their obsession with secrecy was a way of protecting themselves.’
‘Well, at one end of the scale there were the sharks and speculators who preyed on them,’ Rose said. ‘Once in a while some hapless alchemist who’d bragged too loudly about gold-making would be kidnapped and made to tell how it was done. When they failed to come up with the goods, which of course they probably always did, they’d end up hanging from a tree.’ The professor paused. ‘But their real enemy was the Church, especially in Europe, where they were forever burning them as heretics and witches. Look what the Catholic Inquisition did to the Cathars in medieval France, on the direct orders of Pope Innocent
. They called the liquidation of an entire people God’s work. Nowadays we call it genocide.’