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By Gregg Loomis
Dorchester PublishingCopyright © 2004 Dorchester Publishing
All right reserved.
Paris, 0234 Hours
The explosion shook the entire Place des Vosges as well as a good part of the Marais District. Had the thirty-six town homes, nine on each side of the park-like square, been built with contemporary material rather than the sturdier hand-made bricks of four centuries past, the damage might have been greater. Even so, the antique glass had been blown out of every window of the largest of these stately homes, the former Hotel Rohan-Guemenee, the second floor of which had been the home of Victor Hugo.
The only real damage, though, was to Number 26, the source of the blast. By the time the pompiers from the Eleventh arrondissement, the district fire department, arrived twelve minutes later, the building was four stories of inferno. Saving the house and its occupants was not a possibility.
A line of gendarmes kept spectators a respectful distance from the blaze while others interviewed bathrobe-clad residents. One man, an apparent insomniac, told the officers he had been watching a rerun of last year's World Cup championship match when he had heard a crash of shattering glass followed by a flash of light brighter than any he had ever seen. Rushing to the window, he had nearly been blinded by the intensity of the blaze.
The glass, the policeman asked, could it have crashed when something was thrown through a window?
The man stuffed a fist into his yawning mouth, his interest rapidly diminishing now that the best part of the show was clearly over. How does one distinguish between glass shattering when something is thrown into it and the sound of something being thrown out? He shrugged as only the French can, conveying disinterested ignorance as well as annoyance at a stupid question. "Je ne c'est pas."
He turned to go back home, almost bumping into a middle-aged man in a suit. The spectator wondered what anyone would be doing in business attire at this hour. Not only dressed, but in a shirt freshly starched, jacket and trousers neatly pressed. He shrugged a second time and trudged homeward wondering if tv reception in the neighborhood might have been effected by the fire.
The gendarme touched the brim of his cap with a nod, an almost involuntary sign of respect as he wished the new arrival a "bon soire." A straightening of the back and an air of deference were obvious. It was not every neighborhood fire that drew the attention of the Department of State Security and Invstigation, the SDEGE.
The SDEGE man gave the slightest of nods to acknowledge the greeting before staring intently into what was now a smoldering shell. Plumbing, twisted by the hellish heat, poking into emptiness like supplicating arms. The adjacent homes exhibited an ugly black patina of soot as they stared onto the square with windows void of glass. Hot embers hissed with steam as firemen hosed them down. It was as if a shaft straight from hell had broken through the earth's surface where the townhouse had once stood.
"Any idea as to the cause?" the SDCE man asked.
The fireman was fairly certain the nation's security service would not be interested in leaking gas or a match carelessly dropped into the home's supply of kerosene. "No sir, none." He pointed. "The chief fire inspector is over there."
The security department man stood for a moment as though digesting the information before walking over to a short man almost swallowed by his flame-retardant uniform and knee high boots. The impression was of a child playing in his parents' clothes.
The security man displayed a badge. "Louvere, SDEGE. Any idea as to the cause?"
The fireman, too tired to be impressed by what was, after all, just one more bureaucrat, shook his head. "Whatever set it off, it had help from some sort of accelerant. I'd be surprised if it was an accident."
Louvere nodded in apparent agreement. "Ether in an adjoining unit, perhaps?"
The fireman gave a derisive snort. Ether was used in the process of turning cocaine powder into "rocks" of more potent crack. Few narcotic dealers knew (or cared) how to handle the highly volatile anesthetic safely. Misapplication of the heat necessary to the process could and did frequently result in spectacular results.
"In this neighborhood?" He swept a hand, indicating the pricey homes. A three-day tournament was held here in 1615 to celebrate the marriage of Louis XII. The Place had been home to Cardinal Richelieu and other notables, duels had been fought in the center of the square while spectators watched from the shelter of the arcades that fronted the buildings. In 1962 President de Gaulle had declared the Place a national historic monument. The prices of homes here, in the rare event one became available, were not set to be attractive to crack labs.
Louvere's eyes followed the fireman's gesture, taking in the perfect symmetry of the pink brick buildings. "I suppose not."
"Besides," the fireman said, "SDEGE hardly bothers itself with the dope trade. What's your involvement?"
"Let us say it is personal. I have a friend, an old acquaintance in the States, who asked me to meet his sister, show her around Paris. She was staying with a schoolmate in number 26. Someone I had introduced her to called, said he had heard there was trouble here. So I came."
The fireman rubbed a grubby hand across his forehead. "If she was in there ... Well, let's say it will take our forensic people a few days to identify whatever is left, probably have to do it by DNA."
The security man sighed as his shoulders slumped. "I don't look forward to making that phone call."
The fireman nodded sympathetically. "Give me your card. I'll personally see to it you get a copy of the report."
"Merci." Louvere gave one final glance at the gaping cavern that only hours before had been one of the most desirable residences in Paris. Shoulders stooped as though bearing the weight of the world, he walked past the yellow hose trucks that seemed living animals at rest with each breath-like stroke of their pumps. A short way down the narrow street, a Peugeot was waiting at the curb.
Paris, 3 days later
The driver reached over the seat to shake his passenger awake. The man in the back seat of the taxi looked even more worn than most Americans the cabby picked up at Charles De Gaulle after trans Atlantic flight: Clothes rumpled, shirt wrinkled, face unshaven. Once awake, the eyes were the true sign of weariness. Red-rimmed as though from a combination of grief and lack of sleep, they had a stare that seemed to focus on something a thousand miles away until he started counting out euros.
Stuffing the bills in his pocket, the driver watched the man enter a nondescript building across from the Place de l'Opera.
Inside, the American passed antique elevators to climb worn steps to the second floor where he turned right and stopped. In front of him was what appeared to be an unmarked old fashioned glass door. He knew the single translucent pane was the hardest bullet proof glass available. Slowly he lifted his head to stare at the ceiling where he was sure shadows concealed a camera. Noiselessly, the door slid open and he entered a small chamber facing yet another door, this one of steel.
"Oui?" a woman's voice asked through a speaker.
"Langford Reily to see Patrick Louvere," the man said in English. "He's expecting me."
As noiselessly as the first, the second door opened and Lang Reilly entered one of many offices of France's security force. In front of him stood a man in a dark, Italian-cut suit. The shirt was crisp and the shoes reflected the ceiling lights. In years past, Lang and Dawn had joked that Patrick Louvere must change his clothes several times a day to look so fresh.
Louvere regarded Lang a moment through heavily lidded eyes, eyes that had always reminded Lang of a Basset hound. "Langford!" he exclaimed, continuing in nearly accentless English as he embraced his guest. "It has been, what, ten, fifteen years? Too long for friends to be apart." He stepped back, a hand still on each of Lang's arms. "You should have called. We could have sent a car."
Lang nodded. "A cab seemed the quickest way but thanks."
The Frenchman dropped his hands. "I cannot tell you how sorry ..."
"I appreciate that, Patrick, but can we get started?"
Louvere was not offended by what most of his countrymen would consider brusqueness. Americans were famous for getting to the point. "But of course!" He turned and spoke to someone Lang could not see. "Coffee, please, Paulette, This way, Lang."
Lang followed down a hall. It had been almost twenty years since he had last been here but, other than newer carpet, cheap and institutional as before, little had changed.
Happily, neither had his relationship with Patrick Louvere. Although their respective governments had frequent differences-the most vocal being the war with Iraq-the American and Frenchman had remained steadfast friends. Patrick had gladly volunteered to do whatever he could for Lang's sister, Janet, during her visit with a former school chum in Paris. Since Janet was bringing her adopted son, Jeff, the Frenchman had insisted on taking the young boy into his own home daily to play with his own children while Janet and her friend prowled the shops of Rue de Faubourg St. Honore'. It had been Patrick's phone call that had shattered Lang's world for a second time.
The SDEGE man ushered Lang into the same office he remembered and slid behind a desk clear of anything other than a slender file folder. Almost immediately, a middle-aged woman appeared with a coffee service and began to set cups on the desk. Although he felt he had consumed a tanker load of the stuff lately, Lang was too tired to protest.
"So, you are a lawyer now?" Patrick asked, obviously making conversation until the men could be alone. "You sue the big American companies for millions of dollars, no?"
Lang shook his head. "Actually, I do white-collar criminal defense."
The Frenchman pursed his lips. "White-collar? Criminal?" He looked as distressed as if he had been forced to mention the words "Australian" and "wine" in the same sentence. "You defend criminals with white collars?"
"You know, crimes that involve business executives. Non violent, embezzlement, fraud, that sort of thing."
"The kind of criminal that can pay your fee."
The woman left the room, closing the door behind her and Patrick slid the folder across the polished desk top.
Lang looked at it without touching it. "Still no idea who or why?"
Patrick shook his head sadly. "No, none. We found strong traces of aluminum, iron oxide and a nitrogen accelerant."
"Thermite? Jesus, that's not something some nutcase cooks up in his basement like a fertilizer bomb, that's what the military uses to destroy tanks, armor, something requiring intense heat."
"Which accounts for how quickly the building burned."
Patrick was procrastinating the subject of Lang's main concern. The news, therefore, was going to be bad. Lang swallowed hard. "The occupants ... you found ...?"
"Three, as I told you on the phone I was certain we would. Your sister, her adopted son and their hostess, Lettie Barkman."
Lang had known it was coming but the irrational part of his mind had held a flicker of hope that somehow Janet and Jeff had not been there. It was like hearing a death sentence at the end of trial where the result was a foregone conclusion. It just couldn't be possible, not in a sane world. Instead of Patrick across the desk, he saw Janet, her eyes twinkling in amusement at a world she refused to take seriously. And Jeff, the child his divorced sister had found in one of those fever-ridden countries south of Mexico, Jeff with the brown skin, dark eyes and profile that could have been taken from a Mayan carving. Jeff with his baseball cap turned backwards, over-sized shorts and high top sneakers. Jeff, Lang's ten-year-old best buddy and as close was Lang would ever come to having a son.
Lang did nothing to wipe away the hot tears running down his cheek. "Who would want to ...?"
From somewhere Patrick produced a handkerchief. "We don't know. The Barkman woman was a rich American divorcee living in Paris, but as far as we can tell, she had no ties to political extremist. In fact, we can find no one among her friends who even knows what her politics were. Your sister was a doctor, a ..."
"Juvenile orthopaedist," Lang supplied. "She spent a month out of every year working in third world countries where her patients couldn't afford medical care. Jeff was orphaned by an earthquake. She brought him home.
"She also was divorced, was she not?"
Lang leaned forward to stir his coffee. It gave him something to do with hands that seemed useless in his lap. "Yeah, guy named Holt. We haven't heard from him since they split, seven, eight years ago. She kept his name 'cause that's the one on her medical degree."
"And obviously robbery was not a motive, not with the total destruction of the house."
"Unless the thieves didn't want anyone to know what was stolen."
"Possible," Patrick agreed, "but Madame Barkman had an extraordinary alarm system with interior burglar bars. Part of having lived in your New York, I suppose. The place was like, like ... like the place where Americans keep their gold."
"Fort Knox," Lang supplied.
"Fort Knox. I would guess the intent was to destroy rather than steal."
"When we know that, we will be close to knowing who these criminals are."
The two men stared at each other across the desk, each unable to think of something appropriate to say, until Patrick leaned forward. "I know it is small comfort to you, but the fire was intense. They would have died instantly from having the air sucked out of their bodies if the explosion did not kill them first."
Lang appreciated the thought behind the effort and recognized it as a well-intentioned lie.
"The case actually is within the jurisdiction of the police," Patrick went on. "I don't know how long I can continue to convince them we have reason to believe it was the act of terrorists."
Lang wanted the case in the hands of the SDEGE for two reasons. First, his friendship with Patrick was likely to evoke more than the routine effort to see the case solved. Besides, the French security force was one of the world's best. Second, the Paris police was a morass of political infighting. Peter Seller's Pink Panther rendition of the inept Inspector Clouseau had some basis in fact.
Mistaking Lang's thoughts for uncertainty, the Frenchman continued, "Of course, every resource ..."
"I'd like to go to the scene," Lang said.
Patrick held up his hands, palms outward. "But of course. My car and driver are yours for as long as you wish."
"... And, do you have any idea what they did the day before ...?"
Patrick touched the folder. "It would be routine to check such things."
Lang pulled the file over and opened it. With eyes stinging from tears as well as lack of sleep, he began to read.
Lang left his friend's office to go directly to the Place des Vosges. Being here, the last place Janet and Jeff were alive, somehow brought him closer to them. He paused a long time in front of the blackened cave that was number 26. Head bowed, he stood on grass scorched brown. With each minute, his resolve to see the killers exposed and punished increased. He was deaf to the sound of the grinding of his own teeth and unaware the scowl on his face. Residents, deliverymen and the curious increased their pace around him as though he were potentially dangerous.
"I'll get them myself if that's what it takes," he muttered. "Bastards!"
A uniformed nanny behind him broke into a trot to get the pram and its cargo as far away as possible.
His next stop was to a mortician recommended by Patrick. The service was professional, cool and devoid of the oily faux sympathy dispensed by American funeral directors. He paid for two simple oak coffins, one only half size, and made arrangements to have the bodies shipped.
Excerpted from Pegasus Secret by Gregg Loomis Copyright © 2004 by Dorchester Publishing. Excerpted by permission.
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