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France, present day
Ascher Vallois unlocked the trunk of his car. The hydraulics squeaked as the trunk yawned open. He was ready for a new car, but given the finances, the ten-year-old Renault Clio would have to serve.
He set a practice épée and mask onto the trunk bed. Tearing the Velcro shoulder seams open on his jacket, he then tugged that off.
Wednesday afternoons demanded he wear the leather-fronted plastron. The teenage students he taught were overly confident about their lunges. Actually, they thought themselves indestructible. They didn't give consideration to their teacher's destructibility. That was why he also wore a full mask. The scar on his jaw had been a lesson to ensure he wore complete protection around kids at all times.
Tomorrow he planned to bring his collection of instructional videos to the studio. The students could learn the importance of a well-designed weapon from watching a master forge a blade. As well, there was much to be gained from watching fencing masters in competition.
Ultimately, he wanted to have a camera set up in the studio so he could record students, and then play back their practice matches for them to study. The best way to learn was by observing your own bad habits and then correcting them.
All things in good time, he told himself. And if his latest expedition proved successful, the aluminum fencing piste he'd been dreaming about could become reality. It was wireless, which would be more practical for movement and scorekeep-ing, considering he hadn't the cash to hire an assistant.
He slammed the trunk shut. It was well past sunset, yet a rosy ambiance painted the horizon, reminding him of a woman's blush. An autumn breeze tickled the perspiration at the back of his neck, drying his sweaty hair.
The noise of traffic from the main shopping stretch had settled. Sens had relaxed and let out its belt. The citizens of the French city were inside restaurants chattering over roasted fowl and a bottle of wine, or at home watching the nightly news or shouting at the quiz shows.
Shoving a hand in his pants pocket, Ascher mined for his keys, but paused. A tilt of his head focused his hearing behind him and to the left.
He was not alone.
Swinging a peripheral scan, he paused only a quarter of the way through his surroundings.
Standing at the front left corner of the Clio, a tall thin man with choppy brown-and-blond hair rapped his knuckles once upon the rusted hood of the vehicle. A silver ring glinted, catching the subtle glow from an ornamental streetlight up the street. Small bold eyes smiled before the man's mouth did.
Ascher felt the salute in that look. A call to duel. The foil had been raised with a mere look. He stood in line of attack.
From where had the man come? This narrow street was normally quiet, save for the business owners who parked in the reserved spaces where Ascher now stood.
Suddenly aware that others had moved in behind him, Ascher stiffened his shoulders but kept his arms loose, ready. He jangled his keys. A tilt of his head, left then right, loosened his tensing muscles.
The air felt menacing, heavy, as if he could take a bite out of it.
The smiling man offered a casual "Bonsoir."
Wary, yet not so foolish as to leap into a fightthis may be nothing more than a man asking directionsAscher offered a lift of his chin in acknowledgment.
"Mr. Vallois, I am a friend," the man offered.
His French accent wasn't native, and he looked more Anglo than European, Ascher thought. A dark gray suit fit impeccably upon a sinewy frame. Probably British, he assumed from the slim silhouette of the man's clothing.
He knew his name? Caution could be a fencer's downfall. Confidence and awareness must remain at the fore.
"I have many friends," Ascher said forcefully, lifting his shoulders. "I know them all upon sight. I do not know you."
Sensing the potential threat level without moving his head to look, Ascher decided there were two men behind him. Bodyguards for the man standing before him?
Ascher eyed the practice épée through the window of the Clio. "Are these gentlemen behind me my friends, as well?"
"You amuse me, Mr. Vallois. And yes, if you wish it, they can be your very best friends. More preferable than enemies, wouldn't you say?"
What the hell was going on? He'd been keeping his nose clean. In fact, the past few years Ascher had gone out of his way to remain inconspicuous. There was nothing like a run-in with the East Indian mafia over rights to claimed treasure to cool a man's jets.
"Jacques Lambert." The man thrust out a thin hand to shakean advance that put him to lunge distancebut Ascher did not take the bait. This guy was not British. An American using a French name perhaps? "My business card claims me CEO of BHDC, a genetic-research lab in Paris. You have not heard of us."
No need to verify that one. Ascher's interests covered anything athletic, sporting or adventurous. Science? Not his bag. "Genetic research? I don't understand," Ascher said.
"It is a difficult field to get a mental grasp on," Lambert replied. "But the beauty of it is that you don't have to understand. Simple acceptance is required."
"Sorry, I gave at the office."
"I'm not on the shill, Vallois. In fact, I have an interest in financing your current dig."
The dig? But he'd only that morning gathered a small crew of fellow archaeologists online. They weren't set to convene in Chalon-sur-Saône for another two weeks.
Who had brought in this fellow without consulting him?
Ascher trusted the two men he had chosen to assist on the dig. Jay and Peyton Nash had accompanied him before. They were his age, far more knowledgeable in archaeology than him, and also enjoyed a challenging mountain bike course, like the one they'd conquered in Scotland's Tweed Valley.
Although he'd recruited another. A woman. He did not know her beyond what he'd learned while chatting with her online. And admittedly, knowledge of her character had been not so important as her figure and those bewitching amber-green eyes.
"I'm sorry, Mr. Lambert, if you have been led to believe"
The sudden heat of breath hissing down the back of his neck did not disturb Ascher so much as piss him off. He stood tall, not about to back down or cringe from the bully behind him.
If the trunk were still open but it was not. The only weapon he had to hand was his ring of three keys and a rudimentary grasp of martial arts. He slipped the ignition key between his forefinger and middle finger, point out.
"I have been following your research online for months," Lambert said. "Fascinating how you tracked the Fouquet journals in the Bibliothèque Nationale."
Ascher thought about the days spent in the huge Paris library that he had genuinely enjoyed. "I haven't posted that information publicly," he said.
"Yes, I know. You made it very difficult, but once I tracked your conversations with the Nash brothers, I continued to follow them."
So his friends hadn't invited this man. Yet they had inadvertently lured an outsider.
"I've hired all the men required for the dig, I'm afraid."
"You misunderstand, Vallois." Lambert made eye contact with the thugs over Ascher's shoulder. He went for the riposte, slipping something out of his suit coat's inner pocket. It unrolled with a shake. Lambert then slid one hand into the surgical glove. "I" he gave the glove a crisp snap "have a keen interest in the sword."
Ascher's intuition screamed this was not the place he should be at this moment. Sometimes it was better to run, and risk injury, than to stick around and risk death. Fencing skills aside, now was the time to employ street smarts.
Ascher jabbed an elbow backward, catching one of the thugs in the ribs.
A meaty arm snaked about Ascher's neck. A vicious squeeze choked off his cry of surprise. Levering his foot against the door of his car, he tried to push off the man, but his attacker leaned into the force, making escape impossible.
"No, no, mustn't struggle," Lambert said calmly, as if directing a child afraid of the dentist's drill. He tugged the fingertip of one glove, snapping it smartly into place. "This is not what you might suspect."
"I suspect everything," Ascher hissed. "I know I do not like you"
Chokehold released, Ascher's arms were wrenched behind him and upward. His shoulder muscles were forced beyond their limit, and his deltoids stretched painfully. Bent forward, he intended to kick backward, but Lambert's next move stopped him.
Further utilizing the dread calm of a looming dentist, Lambert withdrew a vial from inside his suit coat.
"The musketeer's sword has been tops on my list of plunder for quite some time. I believe you have discovered the only possible resting place for the sword, Mr. Vallois." Lambert tapped the finger-size vial against his wrist. There was something inside, white, stick-like. "Surprising, the conclusions you made about the location, but when I thought about it awhile, very believable. I wish you great success."
"The sword is not for sale," Ascher said.
"When one acquires plunder, sir, one does not pay for it. But I am willing to put forth something for your efforts. You will require cash to finance your dig."
"Already taken care of."
"Your check bounced at the bank. My guess? You should start seeing the overdrafts immediately. I know you are two months behind on rent for that little fencing salon around the corner. Pity. The children will be deprived of your witty yet charming teaching manner," Lambert said.
Ascher grunted against the increasing force straining his muscles.
"As for that cottage you call a mansion out of town, I've made it my business to know your electricity will be shut off two days from now." He bent close to Ascher's face. "Allow me to ease your financial strain."
"There is no amount you can offer for the sword."
Ascher twisted. Two meaty hands held firmly. It was quite embarrassing how easily he'd been wrangled. As long as his aggressor held his arms back at such a painful angle, he could not escape.
"That sword is something I have searched for for years," Ascher hissed. The gloved hand waggled its fingers before him. A disturbing threat. "I could not possibly put a monetary value to it"
Suddenly pierced from behind, Ascher's body clenched, his chest lifting and his body arching upward as his shoulders were wrenched further backward. He was impaled. Stuck like a pig. The pain was incredible, so much so that much as he wanted to scream, he could not put out a single breath.
A blade had entered his left kidney. The thug behind him shoved it to the hilt.
Lambert stood right before him now. An intelligent and greedy gaze followed Ascher's gasps of pain. "Of course, it would be difficult to fix a price to so intriguing a find as the sword."
Wincing, Ascher groaned low in his throat. He felt tears roll down his face. It was impossible to make a defensive move or push away his attacker. Barely able to stand, he battled against his fading consciousness by drawing in deep breaths through his nose.
"I wager you'll hand over the sword for a kidney." A snap of the rubber glove released a haze of cornstarch powder.
"I need only one!" Ascher defiantly managed to declare.
"Sure, a man can survive with one, but you won't have that one forever."
The other thug, who had been standing to the side, stepped forward. Ascher cried out as he took a punch to the right kidney. But, held carefully, his torso did not take the blow with another cringe. It seemed they wanted to ensure the knife remained firmly placed.
"Should you refuse to cooperate," Lambert continued, "I shall return for the other. But know, I can give you a replacement in exchange for your cooperation."
Feeling blackness toy with his consciousness, Ascher heard something crackle like plastic.
"Open his mouth."
His mouth was wrenched open from the right by the one who had punched him.
Lambert stabbed something into his mouth and rubbed it inside Ascher's cheek. "DNA evidence. I'll take it back to the lab and immediately begin to grow your new kidney. Therapeutic cloning. Quite the marvel. Think of it as your new life insurance policy."
The thug clapped Ascher's jaw shut, and Ascher briefly saw Lambert deposit a white swab into the glass vial.
"What do you say, Vallois? Do we have a deal?"
"I " He was losing it. Pain shot up and down his spine and spidered through his entire nervous system. He had never known such agony. He couldn't think, let alone move.
"If you refuse, I'll have Manny tug the knife from your back. Within twenty minutes, you'll bleed out internally. You will be dead, Mr. Vallois."
Death sounded much better than this torture, Ascher thought.
"But, keep the knife in place and accept the escort to casualty that I am willing to provide, and you'll have a pleasant hospital stay, and be back in the field in, oh, ten days? Of course, the left kidney is a loss." The plastic rattled before Ascher's closed eyes. "What do you say?"
The man behind him tapped the blade shoved deep inside his body. Ascher yowled as the vibrations sent out new waves of shocking anguish.
"In or out?" Lambert asked. "The blade, that is."
Feeling his body release the tense cringe and fall forward, Ascher chased the darkness. Passing out would stop the pain. And so would his compliance.
"In," he muttered, and then the world stopped.
Court of Loius XIV
"History shall revere Charles de Castelmore d'Artagnan."
Queen Anne nodded to Charles, who stood in full regalia musket and bandolier spread across his black coat trimmed in gold. A red plume dusted the air above his right brow, and his boots were polished to a shine to rival the mirrors in Versailles.
To the queen's right, a liveried foot guard stepped up, proffering a red velvet pillow with a sword laid upon it.
Containing his excitement, Charles drew in a breath and maintained a solemn expression.
The queen took the sword by the gold hilt and held it before her, seeming to look it over, but moreover, displaying it to all who had congregated in the king's private chapel to celebrate one of Louis XIV's musketeers. She handled the weapon with skill, though d'Artagnan doubted she'd had occasion to use the weapon.