Read The Alchemist's Secret Online

Authors: Scott Mariani

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

The Alchemist's Secret (4 page)

‘I’ve heard of the Cathars,’ Ben said. ‘Can you tell me more?’

Rose took off his glasses and polished them with the end of his tie. ‘It’s a terrible story,’ he said. ‘They were a fairly widespread medieval religious movement that mainly occupied the part of southern France now known as the Languedoc. They took their name from the Greek word
Catharos
, meaning “pure”. Their religious beliefs were a little radical in that they regarded God as a kind of cosmic principle of love. They didn’t attribute much importance to Christ, and may not even have believed he existed. Their idea was that, even if he had existed, he certainly couldn’t have been the son of God. They believed that all matter was fundamentally crude and corrupt, including human beings. For them, religious worship was all about spiritualizing, perfecting and transforming that base matter to attain union with the Divine.’

Ben smiled. ‘I can see how those views might have upset the orthodoxy a little.’

‘Absolutely,’ Rose said. ‘The Cathars had essentially created a free state that the Church couldn’t control. Worse, they were openly preaching ideas that could seriously undermine its credibility and authority.’

‘Were the Cathars alchemists?’ Ben asked. ‘The part about transforming base matter sounds very like the ideas of alchemy.’

‘I don’t think anyone knows that for certain,’ Rose said. ‘As a historian, I wouldn’t stick my neck out on that one. But you’re quite right. The alchemical concept of purifying base matter into something more perfect and incorruptible is certainly well in tune with Cathar beliefs. We’ll never know for sure, because the Cathars never lived long enough to tell the tale.’

‘What happened to them?’

‘In a nutshell, mass extermination,’ Rose said. ‘When Pope Innocent
III
came to power in 1198, the alleged heresies of the Cathars gave him a magnificent excuse to extend and reinforce the Church’s powers. Ten years later he put together a formidable army of knights, the biggest ever seen in Europe at that time. These were hardened soldiers, many of who had seen service fighting in the Holy Land. Under the command of former crusader Simon de Monfort, who was also the Duke of Leicester, this huge military force invaded the Languedoc and one by one they massacred every fortress, town and village with even the remotest Cathar connection. De Monfort became known as the “glaive de l’eglise”.’

‘The sword of the Church,’ Ben translated.

Rose nodded. ‘And he meant business. Reports at the time spoke of a hundred thousand men, women and children slaughtered at Béziers alone. Over the next few years the Pope’s army swept over the entire region, destroying everything in its path and burning alive anyone who didn’t die under the sword. At Lavaur in 1211 they threw four hundred Cathar heretics on the pyre.’

‘Nice,’ Ben said.

‘It was a vile affair,’ Rose continued. ‘And it was during this time that the Catholic Church formed its Inquisition, a new wing of Church officialdom to lend greater authority to the atrocities performed by the army. They oversaw duties of interrogation, torture and execution. They were answerable only to the Pope personally. Their power was absolute. At one point in 1242, the Inquisitors were acting so bloodthirstily that a detachment of disgusted knights broke away from their station and slaughtered a whole bunch of them at a place called Avignonet. Of course, the rebel knights were quickly suppressed. Then, finally in 1243, after the Cathar resistance had held out much longer than anyone had anticipated, the Pope decided it was time to finish them off once and for all. Eight thousand knights laid siege to the last Cathar stronghold, the mountaintop castle of Montségur, firing enormous rocks at its ramparts from their catapults for ten solid months until the Cathars were finally betrayed and forced to surrender. Two hundred of the poor souls were brought down the mountain and roasted alive by the Inquisitors. And that was more or less the end of them. The end of one of the most scandalous holocausts of all time.’

‘I can see alchemical heresy might have been a risky thing to get into,’ Ben said.

‘Still is, in some ways,’ Rose replied playfully.

Ben was taken aback. ‘What?’

The professor threw his head back and laughed. ‘I don’t mean they’re still executing heretics in the public square. I was thinking of the danger for people like myself, academics or scientists. The reason nobody wants to touch this subject with a bargepole is the reputation you’d get for being a crank. Every so often someone takes a bite of the forbidden apple and their head rolls. Some poor sod got the sack for just that reason, a while ago.’

‘What happened?’

‘It was at a Parisian university. American biology lecturer got into hot water over some unauthorized research…’

‘On alchemy?’

‘Something of that sort. Wrote some articles in the press that rubbed a few people up the wrong way.’

‘Who was this American?’ Ben asked.

‘I’m trying to remember the name,’ Rose said. A Dr…Dr Roper, no, Ryder, that’s it. There was a big furore about it in the academic world. It even got mentioned in the French Medieval Society bulletin. Apparently Ryder went to a university tribunal for unfair dismissal. Didn’t do any good, though. As I said, once they brand you a crank it’s a real witch-hunt.’

‘Dr Ryder in Paris,’ Ben repeated, noting it down.

‘There’s a whole article about it in a back issue of
Scientific American
that was lying about in the college common room. When I’m back there later I’ll look it out for you and give you a call. There might be a contact number for Ryder.’

‘Thanks, I might well check that out.’

‘Oh…’ Rose suddenly remembered. ‘Just a thought. If you do find yourself in Paris, another person you might want to contact is a chap called Maurice Loriot. He’s a big book publisher, fascinated by all sorts of esoteric subjects, publishes a lot of that sort of stuff. He’s a good friend of mine. This is his card…if you meet him, tell him I said hello.’

Ben took the card. ‘I will. And do let me know that Dr Ryder’s number, if you can find it. I’d really like to meet him.’

They parted with a warm handshake. ‘Good luck with your research, Benedict,’ said Professor Rose. ‘Try not to leave it another twenty years next time.’

Far away, two voices were speaking on the phone.

‘His name is Hope,’ one of them repeated. ‘Benedict Hope.’ The man’s voice was English and spoke in a hurried, furtive whisper, slightly damped as though he were cupping his hand around the receiver to prevent others from hearing.

‘Do not be concerned,’ said the second voice. The Italian sounded confident and unruffled. ‘We will deal with him as we dealt with the others.’

‘That’s the problem,’ the first voice hissed. ‘This one isn’t like the others. I think he may cause trouble for us.’

A pause. ‘Keep me informed. We will take care of it.’

7

Rome, Italy

The big man flipped through the old copy of
Scientific American
until he reached the bookmarked page. The article he was looking for was called
Medieval Quantum Science.
Its author was Dr Roberta Ryder, an American biologist working out of Paris. He’d read it before, but because of the reports he’d been receiving over the last few days, he was reading it again in a whole new light.

When he’d first seen Ryder’s article he’d been pleased at the way the magazine editors had attacked her work. They’d torn her to pieces, devoting an entire editorial to debunking and ridiculing everything she’d said. They’d even made a fool of her on the front page. Making such a public example of her had been an undisguised hatchet job, but what else could you do with a once-respected, award-winning young scientist who suddenly started making wild and unsubstantiated claims about such a thing as alchemy? The scientific establishment would not, could not tolerate a radical of this sort who demanded that alchemical research should be taken seriously and given proper funding, asserting that its popular reputation as quackery was undeserved, possibly even a conspiracy, and that it would one day revolutionize physics and biology.

He’d followed her career since then, and been pleased at the way it had plummeted. Ryder had been thoroughly discredited. The science world had turned its back on her, virtually had her excommunicated. She’d even lost her university job. When he’d heard this news at the time, he’d been delighted.

But now he wasn’t so happy. In fact, he was furious, and anxious.

This damn woman wouldn’t go away. She’d shown an unexpected toughness and determination in the face of adversity. Despite the universal derision of her peers, despite almost running out of money, she continued to persist in her private research. Now the reports from his source were telling him she’d had a breakthrough. Not a major one, necessarily-but big enough for him to worry about it.

Clever, this Ryder woman. Dangerously clever. On a shoestring budget she was getting better results than his whole well-equipped, highly-paid team. She couldn’t be allowed to go on like this. What if she discovered too much? She’d have to be stopped.

8

Paris

If the choice of items a person went to the trouble of keeping in a heavily guarded bank vault said something about their priorities, then Ben Hope was a man with a very simple view of life.

His safe deposit box at the Banque Nationale de Paris was virtually identical to the ones he kept in London, Milan, Madrid, Berlin and Prague. They all contained only two things. The first thing they contained varied only in its currency from country to country. The amount was always the same, enough to keep him moving freely for indeterminate periods of time. Hotels, transport, information were his biggest expenses. Hard to say how long this job was going to keep him in France. As the security guards stood outside the private viewing-room he loaded about half of the neat stacks of Euro banknotes into his old canvas army bag.

The second thing Ben kept locked away in the heart of those half dozen major European banks never varied at all. He took out the top tier of the box with the remainder of the cash, set it down on the table and reached into the bottom of the box for the pistol.

The Browning Hi-Power GP35 9mm semiautomatic was an old model, mostly superseded nowadays by plasticky new generations of
SIG
, HK and Glock combat pistols. But it had a long proven record, it was utterly reliable, it was simple and rugged with enough power and penetration to stop any assailant. It carried thirteen rounds plus one in the breech, enough to bring just about any sticky situation to a quick halt. Ben had known the weapon for nearly half his life, and it suited him like an old glove.

The question was, should he leave it in the bank or should he take it with him? There were pros and cons. The pros were, if there was one thing you could predict in his job, it was that it was totally unpredictable. The Browning represented peace of mind, and that was worth a lot. The cons were, there was always going to be some risk in carrying an unregistered firearm around. The concealed weapon meant you had to be extra careful in everything you did. It only took an overzealous cop to decide to search your things, and if you were careless enough to let them find the gun it could land you in a heap of trouble. An eagle-eyed citizen happening to spot the Di Santis hip holster under your jacket could go hysterical and turn you into an instant fugitive. On top of all that, it was almost certain that he’d never need it on this job, which looked as though it was going to turn out a complete wild goose chase.

But hell, it was worth the risk. He put the pistol, the long tubular sound suppressor, the spare magazines, ammunition boxes and holster into his bag along with the money and called the guards in to take the deposit box back to the vault.

He left the bank and walked through the Paris streets. This was a city he’d spent a lot of time in. He felt at home in France and he spoke the language with only a slight trace of an accent.

He took the Métro back to his apartment. The place had been a gift from a rich client whose child he’d rescued. Although it was well located in the centre of Paris, it was tucked away unseen down an alley and hidden among a cluster of crumbling old buildings. The only way in was through the underground parking lot beneath it, up a dingy stairway and through a heavy steel security door. He thought of the hidden apartment as a safehouse. Inside, it was comfortable but Spartan-a utilitarian kitchenette, a simple bedroom, a living room with an armchair, a desk, a TV and his laptop. That was all Ben needed for his doorway to Europe.

The cathedral of Notre Dame loomed above the Parisian skyline under the late afternoon sun. As Ben approached the towering building, a tour guide was addressing a group of camera-toting Americans.
‘Founded in eleven sixty-three and taking a hundred and seventy years to build, this splendid jewel in stone came close to being destroyed during the French Revolution, later to be restored to its former glory in the mid-nineteenth century…’

Ben entered through the west front. It was many years since he’d last set foot in a church, or even taken any notice of one. It was a weird feeling to be back. He wasn’t sure he liked it much. But even he had to admit to the spectacular grandeur of the place.

Ahead of him the central nave climbed dizzyingly to its vaulted ceiling. The arches and pillars of the cathedral were bathed in the rays of the setting sun that filtered through the magnificent stained-glass rose window in the west façade of the building.

He spent a long time walking up and down, his footsteps echoing off the stone tiles, gazing this way and that at the many statues and carvings. Under his arm was a secondhand copy of a book by the man he was supposed to be looking for-the elusive master alchemist Fulcanelli. The book was a translation of
The Mysteries of the Cathedrals
, written in 1922. When Ben had come across it in the Occult section of an old Paris bookshop he’d been excited, hoping to find something of value. The most useful leads he could have wished for were a photo of the man, some kind of personal information such as an indication of his real name or family details, and any sort of mention of a manuscript.

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