Read The Alchemist's Secret Online

Authors: Scott Mariani

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

The Alchemist's Secret (9 page)

‘What the hell are these questions? Who’s your superior officer?’

‘You should be careful, madame. Remember you’ve committed a serious offence.’

‘Please, listen to me. I think they’re planning to kill somebody else. An English guy.’

‘Oh really? Who’s planning this?’

‘I don’t know
who.
The same people who tried to kill me.’

‘Then I’d suggest that our English friend is in no great danger.’ Simon regarded her with an obvious look of contempt. And do we know who this Englishman is? Perhaps the friend you went to have tea with while the imaginary corpse was lying in your apartment?’

‘My god,’ she exclaimed helplessly, almost laughing with frustration. ‘Tell me you’re not really this dumb.’

‘Dr Ryder, if you don’t shut up right now I’ll take you in. I’ll have you locked up while I wrap this place in police tape and have forensics go through it with a fine-tooth comb.’ He threw down the empty cup and moved towards her. His face was reddening. She backed away. ‘You’ll be examined by the police surgeon,’ he went on. ‘Every inch of you. Not to mention a full psychological appraisal by the psychiatrist. I’ll have Interpol go through your bank account. I’ll take your fucking life apart shred by shred…is that what you want?’

Roberta had her back to the wall. His nose was almost touching hers, his green eyes blazing. ‘Because that’s what’ll happen to you!’

The agents were all staring at Simon. The doctor came up behind him and laid a hand softly on his shoulder, breaking the tension. Simon backed off.

‘Do it!’ she yelled back at him. ‘Take me away! I’ve got evidence-I know who’s involved in it.’

He glowered at her. ‘So you can be the star in your own movie? You’d love that, wouldn’t you? But I’m not going to give you that satisfaction. I’ve seen enough here. Disappearing bodies-tanks full of flies-alchemy-murder plots. Sorry,
Doctor
Ryder, the police service doesn’t cater for attention-seeking weirdos.’ He pointed a warning finger. ‘Consider yourself under caution. Do
not
do this again. Understood?’ He motioned to the others and led the way out. They brushed past her, leaving her alone in the hallway.

She stood there paralysed for a moment with shock and surprise, staring at the back of the hall door and listening to the echoing tramp of footsteps from outside as the policemen headed back down the stairs. She couldn’t believe it. Now what was she going to do?

BH will be taken care of tonight.
Ben Hope. However he was involved with all this, she had to warn him right away. She hardly knew the guy, but if the cops weren’t going to take this situation seriously, it was up to her to alert him to whatever the hell was going on.

She’d tossed the business card he’d given her into the waste-paper basket, with no intention of ever calling him-thank Christ, she thought now, that she hadn’t put it through the shredder. She up-ended the bin, spilling crumpled papers, orange peel and a crushed fizzy drink can onto the lab floor. The card was lying underneath, stained with spots of Coke. She grabbed her phone and stabbed the keys, pressed it to her ear and waited for the ringing tone.

A voice answered. ‘Hello? Ben?’ she began urgently. But then she realized what she was hearing.

‘Welcome to the Orange answerphone. I’m sorry, but the person you have called is not available…’

14

The Opera Quarter, central Paris

The rendezvous point Ben had chosen for that night’s meeting was the Madeleine church on the edge of the Opera quarter. It was his habit never to make contact or be picked up too near a place he was staying in. He hadn’t liked the way that Fairfax’s people knew his location in Ireland and sent for him at home.

He left the apartment at 8.20 and walked briskly to the Richelieu Drouot Métro station. It was only two stops to his destination on the jerking, rumbling train. He threaded through the crowds that filled the underground tunnels and emerged back onto the street at the Place de la Madeleine. At the foot of the towering church, he lit a cigarette and leaned against one of the Corinthian columns, watching the traffic go by.

He didn’t have to wait long. At the appointed time, a large Mercedes limousine veered out of the traffic and glided to a halt at the kerbside. The uniformed driver climbed out.

‘Monsieur ‘Ope?’

Ben nodded. The chauffeur opened the rear door for him and he got in. He watched Paris go by. It was getting dark as they left the outskirts of the city and the long, silent limo made its way outward along increasingly narrow, unlit country lanes. Bushes and trees, the occasional darkened building, and a little roadside bar flashed by in the headlights.

His driver was short on conversation, and Ben lapsed into thought. Loriot was obviously a highly successful publisher, judging by the mode of transport that had been sent out to collect him. It didn’t seem likely that the success of his business depended much, if at all, on publishing titles with an esoteric or alchemical theme-a search of the
Editions Loriot
website had flagged up only a handful of them, and nothing that seemed related to what he was looking for. In any case it was hardly a very commercial sector of the book market. But Rose had said Loriot was a real enthusiast. It was probably just a hobby thing for him, perhaps a personal interest in the subject that he’d brought into the business as a sideline, to cater for like-minded alchemy buffs. Maybe he’d be able to point him in the right direction. A wealthy collector might even have rare books, or papers or manuscripts of his own, that could be of interest. Perhaps even…no, that was hoping for too much. He’d just have to wait and see where tonight’s meeting took him. He glanced at the luminous dial of his watch. They should be there soon. His thoughts meandered.

He felt the Mercedes slow. Had they arrived? He looked out past the driver at the dark road. They weren’t in any village, and there didn’t seem to be any houses nearby. He saw a large road sign lit up in the headlamps.

DANGER
LEVEL

CROSSING

The wooden barriers were raised upwards, allowing the car to pass underneath. The limo eased slowly onto the tracks and halted. The driver reached down to press a button on the console next to him and there was a
clunk
as the central locking was activated. A whirring sound, and a thick glass partition rose up, screening him off from the driver.

‘Hey,’ he called, rapping on the glass. His voice sounded hollow in the soundproof compartment. ‘What’s going on?’ The driver ignored him. He tried the door, knowing in advance it was going to be locked. ‘Why’ve we stopped? Hey, I’m
talking
to you.’

Without a glance at him or a word in reply, the driver turned off the ignition and the headlights darkened. He swung open the heavy door and the car’s internal light came on. Ben noticed that the partition between them was steel reinforced, crisscrossed internally with a grid of stiff wire.

The driver calmly got out of the car. He slammed the door shut and the interior of the car went dark. A bobbing beam of pale torchlight appeared as the man searched ahead of him, walking away up the empty road. The torch beam was sweeping from side to side as though looking for something up ahead. The trembling pool of light settled on a black Audi parked at the roadside, some fifty yards away beyond the level crossing. Its taillights came on and a door was thrown open as the limo driver neared it. He got in.

Ben hammered on the glass partition, then on the tinted window. The Audi’s taillights were all he could see in the dark. After a minute or so the car pulled away and disappeared up the road.

He groped about in the back of the Mercedes for a way out. He tried the doors again, knowing it was pointless and fighting a rising tide of anxiety. There would be a way out. There was always a way out of everything. He’d been in worse situations than this.

He heard a sound from outside, the ring of a bell. It was followed by a series of mechanical noises, and the wooden barriers came down. Even though he was blind in the darkness, he could visualize the scene all too clearly. The Mercedes was sitting astride the tracks, caught between the barriers, and now there was a train coming.

‘All taken care of, Godard?’ asked Berger, the fat guy behind the wheel, glancing over his shoulder as the limo driver climbed into the back of the Audi.

Godard took off his chauffeur’s cap. ‘No problem.’ He grinned.

Berger started the car. ‘Let’s go for that beer.’ ‘Shouldn’t we hang about for a while?’ asked the third man, glancing nervously at his watch. He looked uneasily at the shadow of the Mercedes fifty yards behind them.

‘Nah-what the fuck for?’ Berger chortled as he put the Audi into gear and drove off, accelerating hard up the road. ‘Train’ll be here in a couple more minutes. The Brit motherfucker’s not going
anywhere’.

Ben’s eyes were fully adjusted to the dark by now. Through the side window of the Mercedes, the horizon was a plunging black V of starry sky flanked by the blacker steep embankments on either side that rose up from the track. As he watched, a dull glow between the embankments grew steadily brighter. It became two distinct lights, still a long way off but swelling alarmingly in size as the train got nearer. Through the roar in his head he could faintly make out the sound of steel wheels on tracks.

He thumped harder on the window.
Keep your cool.
He unholstered his Browning and used it like a hammer, whacking the butt hard several times against the window. The glass wouldn’t give. He flipped the gun round in his hand, shielded his face with his free arm and fired a shot at the inside of the glass. The growing rumble of the train disappeared in a high-pitched whine as his ears sang from the gunshot. The pane distorted into a wild spider’s web of cracks but didn’t give. Bulletproof glass. He lowered the gun. Not much point trying to take out the door locks. It would take a lot more than a dozen rounds of a flimsy 9mm to chew through the solid steel.

He hesitated, then started banging again. The distant lights were getting bigger and brighter, flooding the valley between the embankments with a haloed white glow.

There was a crash and he recoiled from the window. Another crunching impact and the crumpled pane bulged in towards him.

A voice from outside, muffled but familiar. ‘You in there? Ben?’ It was a woman’s voice, American. Roberta Ryder’s voice!

Roberta took another swing at the window with the tyre-iron from her Citroën’s emergency kit. The reinforced glass was smashed in but it wouldn’t give. The train was fast approaching.

She yelled through the cracked window, ‘Ben, hold on tight. There’s going to be an impact!’

The howl of the train was getting louder. He barely heard the door of the Citroën slam and the sound of its whiny little engine. The 2CV lurched forward, smashing through the barriers and hurling its feeble weight against the heavy metal of the Mercedes’ rear end. Roberta’s windscreen was shattered by the wooden pole. Metal screeched against metal. She grabbed the gearstick and crunched brutally into reverse, dumping the clutch and skidding backwards for another hit.

The limo had been shunted forwards a metre, its locked wheels making trenches in the dirt. She rammed the Mercedes a second time, and managed to get the nose of the big, heavy car under the opposite barrier. But it wasn’t enough.

Ben was crouched tightly down in the back of the limo. Another impact sent him sprawling. The Mercedes was shunted across the second track, the remaining barrier clattering across its roof.

The train was almost on them, 250 metres and closing fast.

Roberta floored the accelerator viciously one more time. Last chance. The badly buckled 2CV crunched squarely into the back of the Mercedes and she whooped with relief as the limo was knocked clear of the railway lines.

The driver had seen the cars on the tracks. In the wall of noise that was descending on Roberta she could hear the scream of brakes. But nothing could stop it in time. For one terrifying moment the 2CV was locked to the Mercedes and sitting right in the train’s path, torn bodywork meshed together, her wheels spinning in reverse.

Then the wreckage disentangled and the car bounced backwards off the tracks to safety just a second before the train howled past with a great slap of wind. Its massive length hurtled by for ten seconds, then it was gone into the night and its little red lights receded away to nothing.

They sat silently for a moment in their separate cars, and waited for their hearts and breathing to settle. Ben tucked the Browning back into its holster and clipped it into place.

Roberta climbed out of the 2CV, looked at it and gave an involuntary groan. Her headlights were smashed to hell, dangling from their stalks amongst the twisted ruin of the car’s bonnet and front wings. She stepped over the tracks to the limo, knees shaky. ‘Ben? Talk to me!’

‘Can you get me out?’ said his muffled voice from inside.

She tried the Mercedes’ driver door.
‘Duh-
smart thinking, Ryder,’ she muttered to herself. ‘Open the whole time.’ At least the keys weren’t in the ignition. That would have been
really
stupid. She climbed inside and thumped on the glass partition dividing her from Ben. His face appeared dimly on the other side. She looked around. There must be a button for the glass panel. If she could lower it, he could scramble out that way. She found what looked like the button and pressed it. No reaction. Probably needed the ignition on.
Shit.
She found another button and pressed that, and with a satisfying clunk the rear central locking mechanism opened.

He tumbled out, groaning and rubbing his aching body. He shut his jacket, keeping the holster carefully covered up.

‘Jesus, that was close,’ she breathed. ‘You all right?’

‘I’ll live.’ He pointed at the ruined 2CV. ‘Will it still go?’

‘Thank you Roberta’
, she said in a mock-sarcastic tone.
‘How lucky you turned up. Thank you for saving my ass’

He made no reply. She threw him a look, then gazed back at the wreck of her car. ‘I really liked that car, you know. They don’t make them any more.’

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