Read The Alchemist's Secret Online

Authors: Scott Mariani

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

The Alchemist's Secret (8 page)

She was half out from behind the couch when he shouted, ‘Hey! What are
you
doing there?’

He rose from his chair.

She didn’t dare to look up.
Shit, I’m caught.

‘You come down from there, now,’ he was saying in a gentler voice. She looked up, startled and confused.

He was across the other side of the room, by the desk. ‘Come on, my baby, you shouldn’t do that.’ A fluffy white cat had jumped up on the desk and was licking out the plate that he’d left sitting there from his earlier meal. He picked it up in his arms, stroking it lovingly. It meowed in protest and wriggled free of his grip, jumped down on the floor and ran out of the room. He ran after it, nursing a scratched finger. ‘Lutin! Come back!’ He disappeared out of sight and Roberta heard him shouting at the cat. ‘Lutin-come out from under there, you little turd!’

Seeing her chance, she leapt to her feet and dashed up the short passageway to the front door, silently turned the latch and slipped out.

12

When Michel Zardi had first been contacted a few months earlier by the man he knew only as ‘Saul’, he’d no idea who was approaching him, or what they really wanted. He only knew he was being asked to observe Roberta Ryder’s work and send back reports on the progress of her research.

Michel wasn’t an idiot. He’d been with her project from the start, and he had a pretty good idea of its potential value if she could convince anyone to take it seriously. Now it looked like someone was, although it wasn’t the kind of attention that Roberta would have wanted. Michel was smart enough not to ask too many questions. What they wanted him to do was simple enough, and the money was good.

Good enough to make him start thinking that maybe he didn’t
want
to spend the rest of his life bumming around as a low-paid lab tech, especially now that Roberta had been forced to relocate her operation to her own apartment. The project wasn’t going anywhere, they both knew that. He also knew her well enough to know that she’d never accept the reality. Her stubborn pride was what kept her going, but it was also going to drag them both down.

For a long time, Michel had toyed with the idea of leaving and getting better work elsewhere. Just when he’d been on the brink of telling her it was over for him, Saul had turned up out of nowhere. Suddenly, everything had looked different. The promise of a more stable and interesting future working for Saul and his people, whoever they were, meant that he had prospects. And it had helped to harden his attitude towards the American scientist he’d once thought of as his friend. Every couple of weeks or so he’d send in his report, and at the end of each month the cash-stuffed envelope would appear in his mailbox. Life was good.

It was a pyramid of power, broad at the bottom, small at the top. At the bottom, it was made up of lots of ignorant, insignificant men like Michel Zardi-little men whose loyalty could be bought cheaply. The top of the pyramid was occupied by just one man and a select group of his close associates. They were the only ones who knew the true nature, purpose and identity of the organization that so carefully kept its activities hidden from prying eyes.

The two men at the top of this pyramid were now sitting together in a room talking. It was no ordinary room, situated in the domed tower at the centre of an elegant Renaissance villa outside Rome.

The big authoritative man standing by the window was called Massimiliano Usberti. Fabrizio Severini was his private secretary and the only man Usberti trusted completely and spoke openly with.

‘In five years we will have evolved into a far more powerful force than we are now, my friend,’ Usberti was saying.

Severini sipped wine from a crystal glass. ‘We are already powerful,’ he said with a note of caution in his voice. ‘How do you hope to conceal our activities from those around us, if we should grow even more in size and strength?’

‘By the time my plans are in place,’ Usberti said, ‘we will no longer need to worry about concealment. This position we find ourselves in, the need to preserve secrecy, is only a temporary phase in our development.’

Fabrizio Severini was the closest man alive to Massimiliano Usberti. Now both in their late fifties, they had known one another for many years. When they had first met as young men, Massimiliano had been just another priest, though an exceptionally driven one and with the backing of the great wealth of his noble family to achieve his ambitions. But even Severini didn’t fully know what Usberti’s ultimate objective was, the end goal of these plans he so often alluded to. He didn’t push too hard or inquire too openly. Their relationship as friends had evolved over the years as Usberti had grown in power, self-confidence and-he didn’t like to use the word, but it was the only one to use-fanaticism. Severini knew that his friend, or indeed his master as he’d slowly become, was a highly ruthless man who would stop at nothing. He feared him, and he knew that Usberti secretly enjoyed the fact that he did.

Usberti came away from the window and rejoined his secretary under the grand dome. On the ornate seventeenth-century gilt wood table sat a laptop computer displaying a slideshow. The photos were of a woman and a man talking. One of them was a familiar face. Dr Roberta Ryder. The soon-to-be
late
Dr Roberta Ryder.

The man in the photos was someone Usberti had hoped never to see. He already knew all about the Englishman from one of his informers, who’d told him that a professional investigator was going to be sniffing around. The informer had warned him that Benedict Hope had a specialist background and that he was a man of certain talents. This seemed to be confirmed when the hired assassin sent after him had failed to return or report back. Nobody had heard from him, and then one of his sources in Paris had called to say it had been on the news that a man had flung himself off the parapet of Notre Dame Cathedral. Their man.

Usberti hadn’t expected Hope to get this far. But it didn’t worry him. He wouldn’t get much further.

‘Archbishop…’ Severini began, wringing his hands nervously.

‘Yes, my friend?’

‘Will God forgive us for what we do?’

Usberti looked sharply up at him. ‘Of course He will. We do it to protect His house.’

When Severini was gone, the archbishop went over to the antique gold-bound Bible on his desk.

And I saw Heaven opened, and behold a white horse; and he that sat upon him was called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he doth judge and make war.

And he was clothed with a vesture dipped in blood: and his name is called the Word of God. And the armies which were in Heaven followed him.

And he hath a sharp sword, that with it he should smite the nations: and he should rule them with a rod of iron: and he treadeth the winepress of the fierceness and wrath of Almighty God.

Usberti shut the book. He gazed into space for a moment, a grim, set expression on his face. Then, nodding solemnly to himself, he picked up the phone.

13

Paris

Roberta made it back to the 2CV, glancing over her shoulder and half expecting Michel Zardi to come tearing out of the doorway of the building after her. Her hands were shaking so badly she could barely get the key in the lock.

As she drove back to her apartment she dialled 17 and was put through to police emergency. ‘I want to report an attempted murder. There’s a body in my flat.’ She gave her details in a breathless rush as she sped back through the traffic, driving with one hand.

An ambulance and two police cars were arriving just as she pulled up outside her building ten minutes later. The uniformed agents were headed by a brisk plainclothes inspector in his mid-thirties. He had thick dark hair brushed back from his brow, and his eyes were an unusually vivid green. ‘I’m Inspector Luc Simon,’ he said, staring at her intently. ‘You reported the incident?’

‘Yes.’

‘So you are…Roberta Ryder? US citizen. Have you identification?’

‘Now? OK.’ She fished in her bag and took out her passport and work visa. Simon ran his eyes over them and handed them back.

‘You have the title
Dr.
A medical doctor?’

‘Biologist.’

‘I see. Show us to the crime scene.’

They climbed the winding stairs to Roberta’s apartment, radios crackling in the stairway. Simon led the way, moving fast, his jaw hard. She trotted along behind him, followed by the half-dozen uniformed cops and a paramedic team headed by a police doctor carrying a case.

She explained the situation to Simon, watching his intense green eyes. ‘And then he fell, and came down on the knife,’ she said, gesticulating. ‘He was a big, heavy guy, must have landed really hard.’

‘We’ll take a full statement from you presently. Who’s up there now?’

‘Nobody, just him.’

‘Him?’

‘It
, then,’ she said with a note of impatience. ‘The body.’

‘You left the body unattended?’ he said, raising his eyebrows. ‘Where have
you
been?’

‘To visit a friend,’ she said, wincing to herself at the way it sounded.

‘Really…OK, we’ll talk about that later,’ said Simon impatiently. ‘Let’s see the body first.’

They arrived at her door, and she opened it. ‘Do you mind if I wait outside?’ she asked.

‘Where’s the body?’

‘He’s right there inside the door, in the hallway.’

The officers and medics went inside, Simon leading the way. A cop stayed outside on the landing with Roberta. She slumped against the wall and closed her eyes.

After a couple of seconds Simon stepped back out onto the landing with a severe yet weary expression. Are you sure this is your apartment?’ he asked.

‘Yeah. Why?’

Are you on any medication? Do you suffer from memory loss, epilepsy or any other mental disorder? Do you do drugs, alcohol?’

‘What are you talking about? Of course not.’

‘Explain this to me, then.’ Simon grabbed her by the arm and thrust her firmly into the doorway, pointing and looking at her expectantly. Roberta gaped. The detective was pointing at her hall floor.

Empty. Clean. The body was gone.

‘You have an explanation?’

‘Maybe he crawled away,’ she muttered.
What, and cleaned up the blood trail after himself?
She rubbed her eyes, head spinning.

Simon turned to stare hard at her. ‘Wasting police time is a serious offence. I could arrest you right now, you realize that?’

‘But I tell you there was a body! I didn’t imagine it, it was right there!’

‘Hmm.’ Simon turned to one of his men. ‘Go get me a coffee,’ he commanded. He faced Roberta with a sardonic look. ‘So where’s it gone to? The bathroom? Maybe we’ll find it sitting on the toilet reading
Le Monde
?’

‘I wish I knew,’ she replied helplessly. ‘But he
was
there…I didn’t imagine it.’

‘Search the place,’ Simon ordered his officers. ‘Talk to the neighbours, find out if they heard anything.’ The men went off to comb through the apartment, one or two of them casting irritable glances at Roberta. Simon turned to her again. ‘You say he was a big, powerful man? That he attacked you with a knife?’

‘Yes.’

‘But you’re not injured?’

She tutted with annoyance. ‘No.’

‘How do you expect me to believe that a woman of your size-about one metre sixty-five?-could kill a large armed attacker with her bare hands, and not have a mark on her?’

‘Hold on-I never said I killed him. He
fell
on the knife.’

‘What was he doing here?’

‘What does a criminal normally do inside somebody’s apartment? He was burgling the place. Turned my lab upside down.’

‘Your lab?’

‘Sure, the whole place has been ransacked. See for yourself.’

She pointed to the lab door, and he pushed it open. Peering in past his shoulder she saw with a shock that the room had been tidied up-everything neatly in its proper place, files neatly ordered, drawers shut. Was she going crazy?

‘Tidy burglar,’ Simon commented. ‘Wish they were all like that.’

One of the agents looked in the door. ‘Sir, the neighbours across the landing were in all afternoon. They say they heard nothing.’

‘Huh,’ Simon snorted. He looked around the lab, snatched up a piece of paper from her desk. ‘What’s this?
The Biological Science of Alchemy
?’ His eyes flashed up from the page and bored into her.

‘I told you, I-I’m a scientist,’ she stammered.

‘Alchemy is a science now? You can turn lead into gold?’

‘Give me a break.’

‘Maybe you’ve invented a way of making things…disappear?’ he said with an expansive gesture. He tossed the paper down on the desk and strode purposefully across the room. ‘And what’s in here?’

Before she could stop him he’d opened the doors to the fly tanks.
‘Putain!
This is disgusting.’

‘It’s part of my research.’

‘This is a serious health and safety matter, madame. These things carry disease.’ The police doctor was standing behind Roberta in the doorway, nodding in agreement and rolling his eyes. The other officers were returning from their search of the small apartment, shaking their heads. She could feel hostile looks coming at her from all directions.

‘Your coffee, sir.’

Ah, thank Christ.’ Simon grabbed the paper cup and took a deep gulp. Coffee was the only thing that took away these stress headaches. He needed to rest more. He hadn’t slept at all last night.

‘I know this looks weird,’ Roberta protested. She was gesticulating too much, on the defensive. She didn’t like the way her voice was going high. ‘But I’m telling you-‘

‘Are you married? Have you a boyfriend?’ Simon asked sharply.

‘No-I did have a boyfriend-but not any more…but what does that have to do with anything?’

‘You’re emotionally upset that he has left you,’ suggested Simon. ‘Perhaps the stress…’
That’s ironic
, he was thinking, remembering last night’s performance with Hélène.

‘Oh, so you think I’m having a nervous breakdown? The little woman can’t cope without a man?’

He shrugged.

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