The Alchemist in the Attic

Alchemist 4E

San Francisco 1899.

As the city prepares to welcome the new century, a twisted killer enacts his final, grisly legacy.

Theodore Atwood is a disgraced reporter desperate to find a story can save his career. No one knows San Francisco’s seedy underbelly better, but the deeper he digs the more grotesque and bizarre the case becomes.

Haunted by dreams and phantoms, Atwood follows the killer’s trail from the den of thieves and bodysnatchers to a secret society of spiritualists and occultists. Meanwhile, hidden in the shadows the alchemist readies for his enemies. Disgraced and dying, he will sacrifice countless lives to complete his terrible work.

As the city descends into a fevered nightmare around him, Atwood is caught in a deadly game of cat and mouse. He will have to fight to the brink of madness and beyond in order to survive. For he has entered a world of dark science and alchemy and there is no turning back.

It is now available on Amazon.

The Alchemist in the Attic is a historical mystery with occult undertones—a tale of rival newspapermen, murder, and alchemy in turn-of-the-century San Francisco.

 

Here is a Brief Excerpt:

Prologue

There were two of them in the mule cart, huddled against the cold and the night. Behind them, barely visible in the gloom, San Francisco slept fitfully beneath a shroud of thick, dense fog. It curdled over the docks and shipyards and swallowed the city whole, from the warehouses, mills, and iron works to the gaslit streets beyond, and beneath the fog came a sickening chill and freezing rain.

They had left the city behind hours ago, ridden past the forest of masts and sails until it had dwindled down to a handful of smaller ships tied to hastily constructed piers, and those too had faded into nothing. They were alone in the outskirts now, with only the road and the water, and the screeching of the wheels and the groaning of the cart.

The older man was bent over the reins, obscuring his features beneath his hat and cloak. He couldn’t afford to take any chances tonight, neither of them could. Their errand was too important, too dangerous. The dark would hide their sins for a time, and time was all he needed. His work was almost complete and then, at last, his dreams would be made flesh, and all those years of degradation and humiliation would be avenged. It was a terrible, glorious thought.

He chuckled darkly to himself, but the laughter quickly broke into a deep, hacking cough. He brought his handkerchief to his mouth. It came away bloody.

“Damn it!” he muttered to himself. The old man could feel a hollow, lingering sickness burrowing in his chest and he was acutely aware of every jostle, every bump in the road. It was a rickety old cart and the road was uneven, taking them up and around haphazardly steep hills. He coughed again and forced his hands to stop shaking. It was too soon, far too soon. His companion was counting on him to be strong.

The other man was peering out at him with sad, unblinking eyes. He was younger, but if anything he seemed to be suffering even more. Wrapped tightly in an overcoat and blanket, he looked more like a collection of padding than a person, yet still he was shivering. Rain dripped down his hat and beneath his blankets. The poor man was wilted, wet, and miserable, but he managed to hold up a lantern with a trembling arm.

“Remember,” the older man said gently. “Stay close to the light. We’re almost there.” He reached out and straightened the other man’s blanket. His companion nodded, but said nothing.

The road inclined sharply and suddenly they air was clear. Before them there was only ocean.

“This is the place,” the older man said, pulling on the reigns. The cart creaked to a halt and they sat there for a moment, gathering their strength.

“You’re sure?” the blanketed man asked, putting down the lantern.

“I’m sure,” he said.

They clambered down slowly into the mud. They had stopped at a precipice above the Bay.

It was only a short climb down the rock to the waterfront, but they were both thinking about the load they would have to carry. The older man sighed. There was nothing else for it.

“Come on then,” he said.

In the back of the cart, beneath a tarp, lay a single canvas bag. It was full to capacity and bulged in odd places. They both knew what, or rather who, was inside. The younger man shrugged off his blanket then climbed up to grab one end, and on the count of three they began the slow, difficult work of carrying it down. The slope was steep, and the rain made the rocks slippery. They stumbled and slid a few times under their heavy burden. There was much cursing and coughing, and dark muttering, but they finally made it to the shore. The waves lapped at their boots as they swung the sack back and forth—one, two, three—and flung it out into the Bay. It landed with a splash. A wave rippled out against their feet, then was still. It was done.

The younger man looked half dead after the exertion.

“Almost sunrise,” the other said, glancing at the sky.

“I know,” the younger man replied. “I can feel it.” His lips twitched, but it wasn’t much of a smile. They turned and climbed back up to the cart.

Behind them, the body sank beneath the surface, weighed down with stones, and was caught in a number of eddies and currents. The older man had made a careful study of the Bay and its ways. He had chosen this spot carefully. The body might be found eventually, with all the others, but not yet, not tonight. There was still time.

The cart creaked its way back toward the city and the fog. It had been a grim business, but it needed to be done. The old man’s enemies would be coming soon. He could feel them gathering, planning. The night’s work had only just begun.

1.

The Bathhouse

Theodore Atwood had never liked the Hammam Bath—the steam, the heat, the people. He was glistening with sweat, and his threadbare suit clung to him in uncomfortable places. It was hard to think here, hard to breathe, and today was worse than usual. He hadn’t been sleeping much recently and his had dreams left him unsettled, though he could never remember why. He had spent more than his fair share of time inside these tiled walls. The attendants all knew him by name, and he had made a point of returning the favor. In his experience, it always paid to have friends in low places—the lower the better.

The Bath was a favorite among certain circles, frequented by many of San Francisco’s richest and most powerful men, those lured in by its glittering oriental pantomime. They inevitably found that the atmosphere at the bathhouse encouraged them to commit any number of indiscretions, and Atwood had a vested interest in such lapses of judgement.

He made his living as a reporter at the San Francisco Oracle. Atwood was a shameless picker-up of the morbid and the bizarre with a sideline in the scandalous. He’d had his share of successes over the years, most recently uncovering Dr. Gentle’s Bodysnatching Ring, and he dreamed of running the paper one day. It was his birthright, after all. Recently, however, he had been reduced to working as the present editor’s blackmailer-in-chief. It was a degrading task, but well within his talents.

Atwood looked the part with sharp, darting eyes, and a seedy, ingratiating smile. He smelled of cigar smoke and ink, and stank of alcohol and worse. A few bad habits were to be expected in his position, even cultivated—and extravagant, easily identifiable vices could shield a multitude of deeper sins. His father had taught him that, and he had learned the lesson well. Although, like his old man before him, Atwood had found that certain bad habits could take on a life of their own.

”No.” The voice cut through his musings. Atwood pulled at his collar awkwardly and frowned at the balding, mutton-chopped man sitting across from him. In the past, George Gage had always been very accommodating; understandably so, given the nature of their first meeting.

“Excuse me?” Atwood asked. He felt constrained and sluggish and there was a crawling restlessness beneath his skin.

“You heard me, Atwood. I said no. I’m not paying.”

Atwood blinked and wiped the sweat out of his eyes. He glanced across at his partner, Walter, who peered back in solemn puzzlement and gave a barely perceptible shrug. He was just as surprised as Atwood.

Walter Harel was the junior court reporter at the Oracle. Only a few years younger than Atwood, Walter was the closest thing he had to a friend. He was a quiet man and a trifle peculiar, but he had a clever eye and a quick mind. They spent their days in the same cramped courtrooms and cheerless morgues bearing witness to the same daily parade of the baroque and the terrible, the tedious and the humdrum. It was a lonely, cutthroat existence, but in their line of work that counted as intimacy. Atwood had told him to keep silent and observe. He was grooming Walter to take his place one day, although that day seemed increasingly distant.

Atwood gathered his thoughts. “Need I remind you, George,” he asked, “of what I personally observed within these very walls?”

“I remember you breaking down the door,” Gage said. “And bursting in, after you’d tried drilling holes in the wall  first and peering in through the keyhole.” He smirked at Atwood with smug, beady eyes. “But my memory is a little vague after that. What is it exactly that you think you saw?”

“Is that really how you want to play this?” Atwood asked. “You know what happens if we print. Don’t test us. We’ve brought down bigger men than you.” Atwood paused, glancing at Gage’s girth. “In a manner of speaking.”

“I’m sorry.” Gage leaned forward. “I must have misheard. Did you just threaten the Deputy Chief of Police?”

“I’m simply reminding you of the facts. You wouldn’t be Deputy Chief for very long, not if people knew what I knew. Probably best not to risk it, don’t you think?”

“No, Atwood,” Gage said. “I don’t. These days the Oracle is nothing more than a two-bit rag. You and your boss are notorious liars and muckrakers and this city isn’t fond of muckrakers. No one would believe you.”

“Some would believe, especially since it’s the truth.”

“Not enough,” said Gage. “Not anymore. And if you try to smear me, Atwood, I will break you. Not everyone has forgotten what you did during the war.”

“You wouldn’t be the first person to try that.” Atwood’s smile was all teeth. “They’re gone now and I’m still here.”

“For now,” Gage said. “But Maguire can’t protect you forever. I think your grubby keyhole days are almost behind you, and your little paper will be dead soon.”

“Even if that were true,” Atwood said, “it wouldn’t save you. I may be a muckraker, but you’re the muck, George. You won’t come out the better, not without help.”

Gage said nothing. He had a reasonably blank poker face, but Atwood had seen through better. Walter sent him a silent, confirming nod. He had seen it too. Gage wasn’t acting alone.

“Ah,” Atwood said. “I see.” He stood and stared down at Gage. “So be it.”

Atwood stood and left without a backward glance, Walter trailing behind him.

*

Atwood burst from the Hammam Bath, muttering angrily to himself. He despised the bath’s patrons and their grubby secrets, and he despised the heat, but most of all, he despised being outmaneuvered. Gage was the third in as many weeks to refuse to pay. Someone was poaching and Atwood didn’t like it. Not one bit.

There was a thin, dapper man lurking on the street outside, waiting for them. With his slicked-back hair and well-tailored suit, he appeared as Atwood’s distorted, funhouse reflection, upscale but no less seedy. His eyes were on Atwood almost immediately, and his lips curled into a self-satisfied smirk.

Atwood halted at the sight of him, the wheels turning behind his eyes. “Selby,” he said, and then gave a wry, bitter smile. He understood perfectly now.

“Atwood,” the dapper man replied. Walter glanced between them worryingly, but held his tongue.

“I should have known it was you giving Gage his backbone,” Atwood said.

“Yes,” Selby agreed. “You should have. You’re slowing up, Teddy. Not surprising, I suppose, given your predilections…”

Atwood glared at him. “My predilections are no longer your concern,” he said. “Though I see you still have one for poaching.”

“My current employer prefers to call it expansion.”

“I’m sure he does!” Atwood snapped. “Well, you tell him from me that the Oracle won’t go down so easily. We’ll fight him.”

Selby tilted his head, studying Atwood curiously for a moment. “Such loyalty,” he said. “What could Maguire have done to earn that from you of all people?” He smirked. “Or maybe it isn’t loyalty at all. Maybe you just know that no one else will take you. Young and the Chronicle won’t touch you, not after what you wrote about his brother, and the Examiner certainly won’t, not if I have anything to say about it.” Selby smiled dangerously. “And unfortunately for you, Hearst listens to me on such matters.”

“Well,” Atwood said. “No one’s perfect.” He wanted nothing more than to wipe that smile off of Selby’s face, but something held him back. Selby was entirely too confident for his liking.

A number of hard, leathery men emerged suddenly out of the fog. One was tall and broad. Another had a crooked nose and quick fingers, but they all had a determined glint in their eye. Behind him, Walter took a few steps back, trying to make himself scarce. That sounded like a good idea to Atwood. He preferred fights that he thought he could win, and there were too many of them. Sometimes discretion was the better part of valor. That’s how Atwood had survived the Philippines.

“Gentlemen,” he said clearing his throat. “Nice evening for a stroll.” Then he turned and ran back toward the Bath, but two more men emerged out of a side alley, blocking his path. He made an abrupt turn but found that he was surrounded. There were six of them in all.

“Now let’s not be hasty,” he said. “You seem like reasonable men. I’m sure we could work something out.” They closed in on him with grim faces. “Or not.”

He moved quicker than they expected and struck the crooked nose man hard, sending him sprawling. He flicked out his knife and brandished it at the others. “I don’t want any trouble,” he said. “You can go your way and I’ll go mine.”

The tall man shook his head. “Nothing personal,” he said.

Atwood held them off for a while, but there were too many. He was scrappy in a fight, but they were professional brawlers the lot of them, specially chosen. The crooked-nosed man recovered quickly and knocked the knife from his hand and delivered an uppercut that forced Atwood to the ground. The others quickly pounced, kicking and punching him while he was down. Atwood struggled at first but was finally forced into a fetal position.

He was vaguely aware of Walter, gathering his courage and struggling to join him, but to no avail.

“That’s enough,” Selby called finally. He stared down at Atwood, wearing a self-satisfied grin.

Atwood glared up at him blearily. “Wouldn’t even fight me yourself.”

“Why should I, when I have these fine gentlemen to do it for me?” Selby asked. “That’s Rehms and Wright. They used to be strikebreakers. Clearly they haven’t lost their touch.”

He nodded to the others and they headed out, their work done. “Now.” He leaned down to whisper in Atwood’s ear. “I suggest you find a hole and crawl into it. You’re done here.”

Atwood spat blood in his face.

Selby stood with a dramatic sigh. “I tried,” he said, and wiped his cheek with a monographed handkerchief. “For old time’s sake.”

Atwood believed him. In his own way, Selby was trying to be nice. Atwood choked down a painful laugh. Selby was a sentimentalist, after all, a greedy, vindictive sentimentalist.

Something glinted in the lamplight. It was Atwood’s knife. Selby picked it up and slipped it into his pocket.

“Next time I won’t be so kind,” he said, and then without another word he was gone.

Atwood groaned and struggled to sit up. His ribs hurt. His coat was muddied and covered in blood. For a long moment he simply sat there, breathing heavily.

“I’m sorry,” Walter said, helping him to his feet. “I tried but…”

Atwood waved the apology away. “You’d have been hurt worse than me,” he said. “And for what?”

“You would have done it for me,” Walter said with the same solemn, doting expression as ever.. Atwood wasn’t so sure, but he left Walter to his illusions. He looked up to Atwood for some reason. It was baffling.

This wasn’t Atwood’s first beating, or even his third. He had a quick tongue, and some people were quick to take offense. But it felt different this time. He hadn’t expected it, not from Selby. Atwood had been dancing on the edge for years now and he knew it. He was bound to fall at some point. Still, at least he knew why so many people had stopped paying, but Maguire wasn’t going to like it. Hearst was increasing the pressure and Atwood wasn’t sure they could hold him back forever.

***

 If you want to read more, you can pick it up here on Amazon.

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