A Kind of Alchemy
by London Lampy
The marriage of Mr Julius Pault, the cocoa magnate, to his wife of fifteen years Mrs Gloria Pault, was dissolved yesterday with neither party being present in court. Mr Pault's lawyer pleaded no contest to his wife's request for half of his current fortune, and a forty percent share of any future earnings, along with possession of their Parnell town house.
According to a source close to Mrs Pault she has been living apart from her husband for over a year, dating back to the discovery of the mutilated body of one of his former employees, a young female factory worker by the name of Madeline Crane, in the woods surrounding their country home. At the time of the discovery the police questioned Mr Pault but no formal charges were ever brought and the killing remains officially unsolved.
Mr Pault recently sold his entire cocoa processing business for what was believed to be well under the asking price and is now thought to be residing in the mansion he had built some years previously near the village of Haverham...
"I've found something!" Fran exclaimed loudly, earning himself a glare from an old man who was sitting reading at a nearby table.
Fran, along with Mulligan, Fudge and Ed were in the Parnell central library pouring through files of title deeds, land registry certificates and yellowing newspaper back issues in the hopes of learning something about the location of Pault's house. Fran hadn't really wanted to involve Fudge and Ed, but Mulligan had pointed out that two extra pairs of eyes were something they couldn't afford not to use now the situation had gone from urgent to desperate. He'd taken on the task of scanning through the newspapers and had read more about the unpleasant murder of the unfortunate Madeline than he'd ever wished to, and some of the papers that dealt more in gossip and scandal than hard news had gone so far as to imply that she wasn't the first person connected with Pault to have been found dead in bizarre circumstances.
"What Uncle Fran?" Fudge asked equally loudly, this earning her a fierce "shush" from the old man.
"Here." He pointed to the article as the others came to join him. "It says that Pault has a house just outside a village called Haverham. I'm pretty sure that Haverham is a few miles outside the city to the west, it tallies with what Vic told us."
"A map, we need a map." Mulligan said, going over to sweet talk the woman behind the desk who had already made several trips into the archives for them. When he retuned it was with the most up to date map of the area that the library had, he spread it out over the table on top of everything else and traced a line out of the city to the left with his finger until he found the village of Haverham. Half an inch away from the village was a dot with the words "private residence" printed underneath it, and around the dot was a substantial crossed hatched area showing the land that went with the house.
"There." Mulligan tapped the dot with his finger. "I think that's probably what we're looking for."
"Probably?" Fran questioned.
"It's our best bet, it fits with what Victor said and the newspaper account, but it does all still hinge of Victor having got the right person." They both knew that this could all be a wild goose chase, but everything they had learned in the past couple of days seemed to be pointing them at Pault.
"Are we going there now?" Ed questioned anxiously.
"Mulligan and me are, I think you two should go home and wait, it may be dangerous."
"I'm not bloody going home!" Fudge retorted.
"Me neither." Ed added.
"Shush!" The old man waved his hands irritably at them, no one took any notice.
"Let them come." Mulligan said. "They might be useful, and I don't think that they're going to take no for an answer."
"We won't." Fudge agreed, putting her hands on her hips and giving her uncle a "stop me if you dare" look.
"All right." He sighed. "But you have to do exactly as we tell you." Fran didn't like this, and he hoped that when they got to the house Fudge could be persuaded to stay behind in the carriage and wait for them.
"If you don't keep your chatter down I'm going to have to make a complaint." The old man said firmly. "This is a library, not a social gathering."
"Sorry." Fran apologised. "We're going now."
"Good." The man replied, then went back to his book, which was just as well as he was too busy reading to notice Fudge poking her tongue out at him as they left.
Still trussed to the small bed Sam watched the sun move through the sky and dip out of sight of the window. It would start to set soon, then the moon would rise and it would be time for him to die, he wondered how they planned to do it. Back on the dairy farm it had sometimes been necessary to slaughter old or sick cows, his father would take a sharp knife to the animal's throat, there would be a spray of crimson, the animal would struggle for a few seconds bellowing in pain, then it would collapse to the ground as its life was extinguished. He had an image of the same thing happening to him, could imagine the sharp point of the knife slicing into his exposed flesh, his lifeblood flowing out and making a spreading stain on his white robe as he died.
The four of them sat squashed together in silence inside the small coach as it squeaked and jolted its way out of the city. As Mulligan had wanted to return to the house to pick up some things Fran had been tasked with finding a driver willing to take them that far outside the city so late in the day. The only one he could persuade was a plump, surly man who charged him well over the normal asking price for the privilege of travelling in a cab that was old, badly sprung and smelt of wet dogs. It was gone four o'clock by the time they were on the move and the sensible thing to do would have been to wait until the morning, but they all agreed that with everything they had been told about Pault waiting another night would be potentially putting Sam into even deeper danger.
To break the silence Fran decided to find out the answer to the question that had been bothering him since last night. "How long have you and Sam been dating?" He asked Ed, who was sitting opposite him nervously worrying at a loose thread on the cuff of his coat.
"Um...we haven't actually been on a date." He replied awkwardly.
"But you will when we get him back." Fudge put in, her voice a touch too bright, as if she was trying to sound more confidant than she felt about their ability to secure Sam's return. "You should take him for a romantic walk in the park, I do that with Earnest sometimes, then we go to the little café and have hot chocolate."
"Lovely as that sounds." Mulligan interrupted. "I think we should be sorting out what we're going to do when we get there." Fran glanced at the magician, who had been deep in thought ever since they got into the cab. Balanced on his lap was a large black bag that he'd fetched from the house containing the gods knew what. "We can't just knock on the door and ask if we can have our boy back."
"Why not?" Fran asked, it was what he'd been assuming they'd do. "I thought the best thing would be to explain what happened and ask if we can buy him back, I brought my chequebook." He pulled it out of his inside pocket to show them.
"And if he refuses." Mulligan looked like he was trying very hard not to smile. "A potentially dangerous man will have been alerted to who we are and that we're after the boy he bought, and that would make getting Sam out a hell of a lot harder."
"I was trying not to think about what would happen if he turned us away." Fran admitted. "So do you have a better idea?"
"As it happens I do." Mulligan said, and he began to explain.
Fran had to force himself not to reach up and wipe away the trickle of blood that was running down onto his face from his hair, he looked over at the other three who were now standing in the twilight on the grass under a small thicket of trees. Ed had a large purple bruise on his cheek and was holding his arm to his chest as if it were broken, Fudge had a graze on her chin, her trousers were torn and when she walked she limped badly, and Mulligan, who had persuaded the driver to lend him his uniform of a cape and a round topped hat, had mud and grass liberally smeared over his clothes and shoes.
"That's good Fudge, very convincing." Mulligan said. "But I think it would be more realistic if you limped on the other leg because that's where we tore your trousers, and Fran, act a bit confused, you're meant to have hit your head."
"I'll try." He replied. He had to concede that the magician's plan was a good one, they were to pose as a coach man and his three passengers, a family they had decided was best, with Fran as the father, Fudge as his daughter and Ed as his son-in-law, who had been involved in an accident and needed shelter for the night. Some of the items in Mulligan's bag had turned out to be tubs of Banbridge's theatrical make up, and a small bottle of Banbridge's best quality stage blood which they'd used to give themselves convincing looking injuries, and Mulligan's clothing swap made him appear every inch the Parnell cab driver.
"What's out story?" Mulligan asked Ed.
"A herd of deer ran out in front of the horse, the horse spooked and bolted, the cab turned over, we were hurt, the horse broke it's leg and had to be put out of its misery and we need shelter for the night because it'll be dark soon, and we'll go on foot to the nearest town or village tomorrow to find another coach."
"Very good son." He nodded. "And what are we not to mention?" He directed this at Fudge.
"Anything about Sam." She replied.
"And what are we going to do when the house settles down for the night?" He quizzed Fran.
"For the gods sake, we went over this a hundred times in the cab." He protested. "Do I really have to?"
"Frannie, we need this to be as water tight as we can make it."
"Sorry." He sighed. "You're right, fine, we carefully search the house for Sam, if anyone catches us we say we were looking for the bathroom, and if we find him..."
"When we find him." Fudge interrupted.
"When we find him we bring him back here to where the driver has very kindly agreed to wait." He glanced over his shoulder to where the cab was parked some way off. The driver was sitting on his seat smoking a pipe and looking smug, as well he might with a cheque for fifty pounds in his pocket. "Then we take Sam back home, with hopefully no one in the household being any the wiser that he's gone until the sun has risen."
"Excellent, let's go then." Mulligan said, setting off down the track, carrying a small lantern to help light the way.
The house remained out of sight until they crested a small slope, and even then with the rapid approach of night it was hard to make out much other than a black shape squatting on the top of a hill about half a mile away. It was clearly a very large place, Fran had seen it described as a mansion in some of the newspaper reports and although he wasn't exactly how big a house had to be to become a mansion he wasn't going to disagree with the description. It seemed to have a lot of spiky protrusions on the roof, chimney pots he assumed, and a good number of smaller outbuildings clustered around the edges, searching the place wasn't going to be either a quick or an easy job. Oddly despite the encroaching darkness there was only a single lighted window visible from the track, this was on the ground floor, and it was lit by a dull shifting orange glow. As they approached the place Fran found that his mind began to play tricks on him and the house began to resemble some kind of horned beast with the glowing window as its eye, and he would not have been too surprised if a reptilian eyelid had suddenly descended over it in a rapid blink.
"It's a bit bloody creepy isn't it?" Fudge said as they crossed through a large pair of iron gates that appeared to be rusted open, their worked metal curves and spirals wrapped in sharp thorny brambles and creeping ivy.
"Would you like to go back and wait in the carriage?" He'd been trying to persuade her to stay behind the whole way there, but perhaps now the reality of what they were doing had sunk in she might assent to his wishes.
"No." She shook her head defiantly. "If you're all going I'm going."
The driveway must have once been neatly paved but over the years plants had pushed their way between the flags and the elements had taken their toll too, and now in the gloom the four of them had to tread very carefully to avoid tripping and falling. When they eventually reached a portico that was built around a large pair of warped wooden doors they stopped.
"Are you ready?" Mulligan asked.
"As we'll ever be." Fran replied.
"Remember, no heroics, and no unnecessary theatrics." He looked at Fudge as he said this. "We wait until things are quite, we search the house, find Sam and leave, hopefully without Pault or any of his servants noticing."
They climbed a handful of steps up to the doors, to the right hand side hung a rotting length of rope that served as a bell pull and Mulligan tugged on it, creating a clanging noise somewhere inside the building. Fran took a deep breath, this was it, all they could do now was wait for the door to be answered.
The sky outside the window was the final shade of blue before the night's blackness took over when the door was opened and the by now all too familiar figurers of the two servants came to fetch Sam for the final time.
He didn't bother to struggle as he was unbound from the bed, he had neither the strength or the will left, he knew that Grist would easily overpower any escape attempts he made, and he had decided that he would like his final minutes alive to be free from pain. He meekly followed them through the dimly lit mouldering house wondering what would happen when his murder failed to revive the health of the Master. Would he seek out yet another life to take in the mistaken belief that he could be cured, then another and another and another as each attempt failed until his illness finally claimed him?
The house seemed even darker than the last time he'd been out of the nursery bedroom, so much so that Grist carried a lantern to help guide their way to the ground floor. Once there he was led into a large room that must have once upon a time been a grand reception room, a room for holding parties in and impressing guests with, but was now just an almost empty and dilapidated space. It was entirely lit by at least a dozen fat white candles that were placed in a rough circle around a large table that was covered with a white cloth. On the end of the table had been placed a number of objects, a tray with a steaming teapot and a filled cup, a large square hinged box lacquered with a pattern of red and black crescents, a water filled basin and a cloth, a kitchen bowl containing white gleaming salt and a single worked silver cup. Beside the table, sitting in a carved wooden throne like chair with a black bound book resting in his lap was the Master.
"Hello Sam." He greeted, his voice little more than a hiss. The wizened man was dressed in a simple white robe similar to the one Sam had on, and as he was greeting him Sam noticed Grist slipped on a robe of his own over his clothes. "Wash your hands and face." The sick man instructed him, pointing to the bowl. "Then drink the contents of the teacup."
Sam was surprised to find that the water in the bowl was warm, someone had taken the trouble to heat up the water for the sacrifice, he suspected that it must have been the golden eyed servant who was now standing in the shadows at the back of the room, he wasn't wearing a white robe and he didn't look like he was here to take any kind of an active part in the proceedings. As Sam wiped his face with the cloth he heard a sound, a bell had begun to clang loudly from somewhere outside the room.
"What...who can that be?" The Master asked, his thin voice irritated.
"Must be more of the village shopkeepers after money owed." Grist replied.
"Ignore them, once my health is restored they can have their petty debts paid back...I'll pay them double." He began to cough.
"Master, remember last time? Some of the bolder ones took it upon themselves to attempt to break in and try to reclaim their money in kind, we can't afford a repeat of that tonight."
"Ah yes, you are right, slave." He addressed the golden eyed man. "There are some coins in the bottom drawer on the left hand side of my desk, I give you permission to enter my study and retrieve them, then pass them onto the villagers. See the idiots off as fast as you can, and on no account disturb me after, nothing must disrupt my ceremony, do you understand?"
"Yes Master." Came the quiet reply.
"Sam, are you cleansed?" He asked once the door was shut.
"Then drink the contents of the cup, lie down upon the alter." He pointed a skeletal finger at the table. "And it shall begin."
[For those who use webmail, or whose regular email client opens when they want to use webmail instead: Please right click the author's name. A menu will open in which you can copy the email address to paste into your webmail system (Hotmail, Gmail, Yahoo etc). Each browser is subtly different, each Webmail system is different, or we'd give fuller instructions here. We trust you to know how to use your own system. If the email address pastes with %40 in the middle, replace that with an @ sign.]