Read an Excerpt
Lozère, France Present Day
She was being followed.
Annja Creed knew that from experience. She'd been followed before. Stalked, actually. On two occasions—once in Venice and once outside Berlin—the experience had ended in violence.
"Wait," Annja told her young guide.
Avery Moreau, seventeen years old and French, his hair a thick black shock and his demeanor sulky, stopped. Thin and lanky, dressed in his American jeans, red pullover and gray Nike hoodie, he didn't look as if he'd be particularly helpful in a physical encounter.
"What's wrong?" he asked.
"I want to look at this." Annja stood in front of the shop window and gazed with interest.
The young man glanced at the window, then back at her. "You're thinking about going fishing?"
For the first time, Annja took her attention from the reflection of the two men following her and really looked at the shop window. Pierre's Rods And Flies was written in French.
It was funnier, Annja supposed, in English. Kind of an unintentional double entendre. But it was a bad cover to stop and check out the guys following her.
"In case I stay up on the mountain," Annja said.
"You're going to stay in the mountains?"
Actually, Annja wasn't planning on that. She had a day hike in mind. But she was getting a later start than she'd have liked. Finding provisions and supplies in Lozère was proving more difficult than she had expected.
"I'm not planning to," Annja replied, "but I've learned to be ready for anything."
The two men following her were in their early twenties, no more than two or three years younger than she was. They looked like hard guys off the street, dressed in leather jackets and jeans. Attitude rolled off them in waves. An old woman carrying a bag of groceries crossed the street to avoid them.
They weren't, Annja decided, the kind of guys who normally hung out in a small tourist town like Lozère. Metropolitan arenas seemed to be their more likely hunting grounds. They looked like the kind of men a single woman in a strange place would do better to avoid.
She wasn't afraid, though. At five feet ten inches, athletic and full-figured, and in shape from running, climbing, and martial arts, she knew she could take care of herself. Her chestnut-colored hair was tied back. Wraparound sunglasses hid her amber-green eyes.
However, she was worried about the young man with her. Avery Moreau didn't look as if he'd had to fight thieves in his short lifetime.
What are you doing here? Annja wondered. Why would anyone be following me?
"What will you do with fishing gear?" Avery asked.
"If I get trapped in the mountains," Annja explained, "by a storm or by bears—" She looked at him. "You did say there were bears, didn't you?"
He shook his head. "Wolves. I said there were wolves."
Annja nodded. "Right. Wolves, then."
The two men weren't going away. They stood across the street and tried to look inconspicuous. It didn't work. They might as well have been standing there with fireworks going off and wearing Scottish kilts in a Marilyn Monroe pose.
Who are you? Annja wondered.
She'd been in France for two days. She was rooming at a bed and breakfast outside of Lozère. So far, no one had bothered her.
But that was before she'd come into town and started asking questions about La Bête. The creature was one of French legend and its mystery had never been solved. She'd come to Lozère in an attempt to solve it.
And to get paid by Chasing History's Monsters, the cable show she did occasional pieces for to subsidize legitimate work in her field. It was strange how archaeologists could get paid more for something that remained mysterious, riddled with myth, and might never have been factual at all than for an honest look at history.
During the past two days, however, the local populace had learned that "the insane American woman"—they didn't know how well she spoke French or how acute her hearing was—was seeking the legendary monster.
"Well?" Avery prompted. He acted surly, as if he had something else he'd rather be doing.
"What?" Annja asked.
"Did you want me to take you to your car?" Avery had arranged to rent a truck that Annja would drive up into the Cévennes Mountains.
"In a moment." Annja nodded toward the shop. "Let's go inside."
She led the way, opening the door and causing the little bell over it to tinkle. Avery followed glumly.
Inside, the shop had a wooden floor and a simple demeanor. Shelves built into the walls held lures, line, reels and other fishing gear. Racks in the center of the room held up waterproof pants, vests and shirts. Farther back, displays of rubber boots, waders, seines and other equipment filled the floor.
"May I help you, miss?" a tiny old man behind the scarred counter asked. He polished his glasses on his shirt, then blinked at her and waited.
"Yes," Annja replied in French. "I'm looking for a tent pole."
"You don't have a tent," Avery said.
The old man pointed to one of the back corners.
Annja spotted a bin containing wooden dowels an inch in diameter and four feet long. They were treated and varnished, improving their strength against wear and the elements.
Retreating to the back of the shop, Annja took one of the rods from the bin. She spun it experimentally for a moment, moving it from one hand to the other, and found the dowel acceptable.
She returned to the counter. "This is great. I'll take it."
The old man rang up the price.
Annja paid and thanked him, then asked, "Is there a back way out of here?"
"Mademoiselle?" The old man's gaze told her he didn't think he'd heard her right.
"A back way." Annja pointed to the rear of the store. "A way out into the alley?"
"Yes, but why would you want to—?"
Annja laid a hundred euros on the counter. "Please," she said.
The old man pointed with one hand and picked up the money with the other.
Annja grabbed Avery by the arm, guiding her guide for the moment.
"What are you doing?" he protested, pushing her hand away.
"Trying to keep you from getting hurt," she answered.
"Hurt?" Avery brushed at his hoodie, smoothing the lines.
"Didn't you see the two guys across the street?" Annja threaded her way through the displays at the back of the shop.
A small metal door let out into the alley. She opened the door and went through.
"No," Avery said defensively.
Gazing back, Annja saw that the two men were in motion, heading for the shop. "The two guys who were following us?" she persisted.
Avery shook his head.
He's just a kid, Annja reminded herself. He's probably never seen a mugging in his life. She took a quick breath.
"Okay," she said, "there were two guys following us for the last three blocks." It might have been longer than that. She wasn't sure. She was still jetlagged from the long trip from New York.
"Oh," Avery said, sounding confused.
The alley was narrow and the walls of the two adjacent buildings were crooked. Stones jutted out in a random pattern.
"I want you to go to the car," Annja said.
"Aren't you coming?" Avery looked worried.
"In a second." Annja slid her backpack from her shoulders and handed it to him.
The bag carried her cameras, journals, maps and pocket PC. Replacing those items would cost a few thousand dollars, but she figured they were safer in Avery's hands than hers for the next few minutes.
"Take this to the car. I'll be there shortly." Annja put a hand on his thin shoulder and gave him a gentle push. "Please, I want you to be safe."
Clasping the backpack to his chest, Avery looked uncertain.
"I'll be there," Annja told him. "In a minute. Now go."
Reluctantly, the young man left. In a handful of steps he was out of sight behind the twisting alley walls.
Threading her tent pole through her belt, Annja turned toward the back wall of the fishing shop. An accomplished rock climber, she skillfully scaled the wall and came to a rest atop the doorway. Turning around so that she faced the alley was difficult, but she managed.
She took the tent pole in both hands and waited.
Henri Foulard gazed around the fishing shop. He didn't see the American woman anywhere. Growing anxious, he trotted to the back of the shop and looked through the displays.
"She's not here," Jean said.
"I see that," Foulard snapped. At that moment, the cell phone in his pocket rang. He answered it at once. "Yes."
"Do you have the woman?" Corvin Lesauvage's tone was calm and controlled. He always sounded that way. But to the trained ear, his words held a dangerous edge.
"Not yet," Foulard answered. His head swiveled, searching desperately for the woman.
"I want to talk to her."
"I know. You will." Foulard pushed through a rack of jackets.
"If she knows something about La Bête that I do not know, I must be made aware of it."
"Soon," Foulard promised.
"Do not disappoint me."
Foulard could not imagine anything in the world that he would want to do less. Lesauvage was a violent man with an unforgiving nature. People who crossed him died. Foulard had helped bury some of them in shallow graves. Others he had chopped into pieces and fed to the fish in the Seine.
The phone clicked dead.
Replacing the device in his pocket, Foulard turned to the old man whose owlish eyes were narrow with disapproval. Foulard knew the old man was not as annoyed as he was.
"Where's the woman?" Foulard demanded.
The old man gripped the lapels of his vest. "You need to leave my shop."
Foulard crossed to the man in three angry steps.
Reaching beneath the counter, the old man took out a phone. "I will call the police."
Without pause, Foulard slapped the phone from the old man's hand, then grabbed a fistful of his vest and yanked him close. Effortlessly, Foulard slipped the 9 mm pistol from beneath his wind-breaker and put the muzzle against the old man's forehead.
"The woman," Foulard repeated in a deadly voice.
Trembling, the old man pointed to the rear of the shop.
Rounding the counter, Foulard stomped the phone to pieces. "Don't call the police. I'm cutting you a break by letting you live. Understand?"
The old man nodded.
Foulard shoved him back against the shelves. The old man stayed there.
"She spotted us," Jean said.
"You think?" Foulard shook his head and started for the back door. He kept his pistol in his hands.
"It's hard to stay hidden in a town this small," Jean said as he drew his own pistol. He held it like a familiar pet, with love and confidence.
"Lesauvage wants the woman alive," Foulard reminded him, knowing how his cohort loved to kill.
"Maybe he won't want to keep her that way for long," Jean said hopefully.
"She's just a television person," Foulard said. "A historian. She won't be any trouble. Don't break her."
Jean grinned cruelly. "Maybe we can just scare her a little."
Foulard grinned at the thought. "Maybe."
Together, they passed through the back door.
Foulard stood at the doorway.
Two paths lay before him. He didn't know which direction the woman went. Avery Moreau should have left him a clue. The boy knew what he was supposed to do.
"Should we split up?" Jean asked.
Foulard didn't want to do that. He didn't like the possibilities that existed when Jean was out of his sight.
Then a cell phone chirped.
At first, Foulard believed that his employer was calling back. Lesauvage could be an impatient man and a demanding taskmaster. Then, his hand on the phone in his pocket, he discovered that the device wasn't ringing and didn't even sound like his phone.
The noise came from above.
He looked up and his pistol followed his eyes.
Avery pressed himself against the alley wall. Even though he hadn't been running, his lungs constricted and his own breathing sounded loud to his ears. His heartbeat was a snare drum in his heaving chest.
He felt bad at having left the woman. Of course he had known the two men were there. He had contacted them to let them know she was seeking to uncover the mysteries of La Bête.
Corvin Lesauvage, the man Avery had gone to with his own problems only weeks ago, was interested in La Bête. Everyone in Lozère knew that. In fact, most who lived around the Cévennes Mountains knew of Lesauvage's interests.
When he'd first offered his services to Annja Creed, Avery had mentioned that she should meet Lesauvage, that he was something of an authority on the subject. She had declined, saying she wanted to form her own opinions before she talked to anyone who might influence her views.
Avery grew afraid for the woman. He knew the kind of men who followed her. Lesauvage maintained two kinds of businesses. The two men on the woman's trail were of the dangerous kind.
Squeezing his eyes shut, willing himself not to cry, Avery thought of his father. Surely his father was cold in his grave now. The funeral had been two—no, three—weeks ago. He'd lost all sense of time. It was June now.
Pressing tight against the wall, Avery waited. He concentrated on the fact that what he was doing would help him get revenge for his father's murder. The policeman who had killed Gerard Moreau would not bask in his glory much longer. He would freeze in a grave during winter. Avery had sworn that.
A cell phone chirped down the alley. It was her phone. He breathed a sigh of relief to know she was still there. He'd been worried she'd figured out he'd led the men to her. More than anything, he couldn't fail Lesauvage.
Then a gunshot shattered the quiet locked in the narrow alley.
Okay,Annja thought grimly as she listened to the strident ring of her cell phone in her pocket, the element of surprise is surprisingly gone.
The two men whirled to look up at her. Both of them held pistols and looked ready to use them.
With the tent pole in both hands, Annja leaped, propelling herself upward and out.
One of the men fired, and the bullet tore through the space she would have occupied if she'd thrown herself directly at them. The steel-jacketed round fragmented against the stone wall and left a white scar.
Annja flipped through the air and landed gracefully in the alley, now to the men's backs.
"No shooting!" one of the men bellowed.
With her feet spread apart, knees bent to remain low, Annja swiveled her makeshift bo stick from her left hand to the right and hit the shooter in the side of the face. His sunglasses shattered and blood sprayed from the impact. He squealed in pain.
Moving quickly to her left, using the stumbling man as a barrier to prevent his companion from aiming at her, Annja gripped the stick in both hands again. This was so not a good idea, she told herself.
She wasn't by nature a violent person, but she immediately resented anyone who tried to take advantage of or intimidate her.
That was one of the reasons she'd taken every martial-arts class she could in New Orleans as she'd grown up.