Here is the latest installment of the Steampunk novella "The Alchemist Files." To catch up with the beginning of the story, click here.
The nights were dark in the countryside outside Marseilles. The ancient abbey that housed the Agency training academy was always quiet and dark, but the calm was worse in the darkness after curfew. It seemed like time was stagnant in these hills, waiting for something violent to waken the old Mediterranean spirits and lift the land from its warm benign stillness. Nothing ruthless ever happened here. No one died here. While they were inside the walls of the academy, the world couldn’t touch them.
Sybil could never sleep on nights like this. It wasn’t because of the torrid summer heat that lingered in the walls after the sun went down. Nor was it the repetitive hum of the insects and the dry grass. She had grown used to this over the past year. The night-noises were drowned out by the constant thoughts that would not be subordinated to sleep.
As long as she could remember, she had been on her own. There had always been people there, at one time there had been parents, but she was always alone. Friends and everyone else came and went like the changing seasons; no one had ever been there long enough. Partly it was her own fault. She knew life was short, too short to spend it all with the same people each day. But life had been unnecessarily fickle with her. Friendships and loves were transient. Now she found it hard to trust that tomorrow would contain the same people as today. It was difficult to believe that when she woke up in the morning she would be in the same bed she had been in for a year, in the same room she shared with Viviette. And as she looked at her sleeping roommate, it was even hard to believe the feelings she had for the girl. Sybil trusted Viviette. She loved her. This was the family she had left behind so many years ago. This was the other half of herself she had never found.
She walked to the window and inhaled. The night smelled of hot grass and stone and fields of lavender almost ready to harvest, of the sea miles away and the olive orchards on the hills above the abbey. And it smelled of amber, orange, cinnamon: the notes of Viviette’s perfume, a scent of comfort and strength. “Thank you,” she said, to no one in particular. “Thank you for this.”
Sybil woke from her dreams of the academy to the sounds of a fire-wagon passing by on the streets below. It was barely sunrise, but the patisserie down the street had already started its morning batches. She could smell the sweetbreads and croissants hot from the oven and the tantalizing scents wouldn’t let her get back to sleep, so she dressed and made some tea and began to pack her things. She would have to get out of the apartment today to avoid the Ministry police. She and Viviette owned very little, so it was no difficult task to pack their belongings into a single trunk. She only kept a small valise for herself. Traveling light was a job requirement. In a few hours, the apartment looked uninhabited.
While half of Paris was still in bed, Sybil had procured a croissant and taken the trunk to an old friend who was in the habit of looking after “things,” no questions asked. He would keep the trunk for her until she could collect it and she knew he wouldn’t open it or divulge its whereabouts to anyone. He was a remarkably uncurious man, and for that she trusted him.
After that she took the metro to the offices of Bonham & Laroche Alchemists. The so-called headquarters was simply a large warehouse filled with medical supplies. From the front entrance she could see shelves of medicines, bandages, syringes, scalpels, powders, needles, etc… “Excuse me,” she said. “I would like to inquire about your hypodermics.”
“Our hypodermics?” the receptionist replied. “You would like to place an order?”
“No, thank you. I was wondering about this one in particular. What can you tell me about it?” She pulled the syringe from her purse and showed it to the woman.
“Why how did you get ahold of that? That is not public property yet, I’m afraid.”
“And what is it?”
“This is part of a small prototype batch we made for the Lucerne Psychiatric Clinic. They weren’t very popular, I’m afraid. As far as I know, most of the batch was unwanted, so we destroyed it.”
A convenient story. Syringes marked for destruction could easily be sold on the black market where they could come into anyone’s possession. And from the black market they would be nearly untraceable. “Can you tell me anything more specific? The hypodermic appears to have a serial number. Perhaps you could check your records and see where this came from?”
“Of course. Just a moment.” The receptionist inspected the syringe and then opened an enormous book. After flipping through a few pages, she found the number. “Why this one wasn’t supposed to be destroyed at all. This was part of the selection we sent to our London offices for our permanent records. You see, we keep a few items out of every batch we produce for future reference—”
Sybil interrupted. “Yes, thank you. Do you think I could have the address of your London office? I should like to make further inquiries.” And moments later she was headed to the Paris docks to find an airship to London.
Stay tuned for Part 5!