About the Author
Sophie Weiner is a freelance translator and book publishing assistant from Baltimore, Maryland. After earning degrees in French from Bucknell University and New York University, Sophie went on to complete a master's in literary translation from the Sorbonne.
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The Rare Earth Exchange
By Bernard Besson, Sophie Weiner
Le French BookCopyright © 2016 Le French Book
All rights reserved.
The plane's antivirus program froze the download for thirty seconds and then authorized installation. The computer software on the Airbus A340 was as secure as the technology protecting nuclear power plants and the Élysée Palace, the official residence of the president of France.
"Air France operations are reporting fog," the copilot said as he entered an access code. "I just downloaded an updated CAT3 landing procedure."
The pilot was completing the approach briefing, checking minimum safe altitude, pattern entry, flap settings, headwinds, and crosswinds.
"Control, Air France 912 from Kuala Lumpur."
"Pass your message."
"How's the fog over Orly?"
"Not a cloud in the sky."
It took the pilot a half second to register the contradicting information. Then he shifted into emergency mode, reviewing the instruments and looking for anomalies. The copilot was already putting in a call to Air France operations.
"Why did you send a fog procedure when the skies are clear?"
Tension filled the cockpit in the silence that followed. At last, someone responded.
"No one here sent you anything."
The pilot transmitted a recording of the earlier conversation and waited, his anxiety rising, for operations to give its verdict.
"That wasn't us. Looks like the information system and onboard communications box have been hacked."
"The antivirus didn't pick up anything," the pilot said. He turned to the copilot. "Do a cockpit check."
The pilot called in the head flight attendant. "I want a thorough cabin check — all the doors, bathrooms, baggage holds, the kitchen, and the emergency chutes. Inspect everything that's operated by the information system. Don't alarm the passengers. If anyone asks, tell them it's routine."
"What am I looking for?"
"Anything unusual. We could have downloaded a virus."
"I'm on it."
The pilot looked back at the copilot. "What's our status?"
"I checked the engines, the fuel supply, the electricals, and the AC. Everything seems fine."
"Call headquarters and ask them if they can upload something to track down this virus and destroy it."
The pilot flipped the switch that allowed him to speak to the 213 passengers.
"This is Captain Charles Meillan speaking. We're approaching our final descent to Paris-Orly. We'll be touching down in six minutes. It's twenty-six degrees Celsius on the ground with clear skies."
"Alexandre, I baptize you in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit."
The priest dripped holy water on the forehead of Victoire Augagneur and John Spencer Larivière's child as sunlight streaming through the stained-glass windows painted the interior of the church in vibrant hues.
John's Franco-American family was occupying the pews on the left, while Victoire's small Franco-Cambodian tribe — survivors of the Khmer Rouge genocide — was on the right. Alexandre would never know the family members who'd been bludgeoned to death in the rice fields by child soldiers ordered to reform the bourgeoisie.
"You may take your pictures," the priest said before moving on to his third baptism of the day.
John's cousins from New Jersey and Victoire's handful of blood relatives crowded around the beaming couple and their baby, ordering the parents to smile this way and that for the cameras.
For two days, both families had been staying at their home, between the Rue Deparcieux and the Rue Fermat in the fourteenth arrondissement of Paris. The home, actually two connected buildings, was large enough to accommodate a dozen guests. It also served as the headquarters of Fermatown, a private intelligence agency run by John, Victoire, and Luc Masseron.
Luc walked up the altar to fulfill his duties. He proudly signed the papers proving his godfatherly commitment. He was even a little teary.
Once outside the church, John reminded their guests that they had a reservation for lunch at La Bélière, the restaurant at the corner of their street. He ambled over to his wife, who was cooing at the baby they had tried so long to have. The infant had given Victoire her wings and him a new vitality.
The sky over Montparnasse was silvery blue, with the chalky traces of jet planes. The party headed toward the restaurant, crossing the boulevard and strolling by the string of theaters along the car-free Rue de la Gaîté as if nothing had changed in recent years, as if climate change hadn't accelerated and geopolitical upheaval weren't destabilizing the balance of powers.
Captain Charles Meillan and his copilot, their eyes glued to the instruments on their control panel, listened to the flight attendant's report as she leaned between their two seats.
"I didn't find anything."
"Thanks, Cathy," Meillan said. "Join the others now. We're going to land."
When she left, the two men did a quick assessment. Headquarters had sent an emergency antivirus. But the director of security had warned that the virus could be a Trojan horse.
"The engines are turning like clocks," Meillan said. "All that's left is the landing gear."
Without its wheels, the Airbus would land on its belly. Its guts would be shredded, and the plane would erupt in flames. How many would perish?
Meillan thought about his wife and his new home on Lac des Settons. With sweaty hands, he gripped the manual control. He'd do it without the computers. It was early, but if there was a problem, they could regain altitude.
Meillan released the gear lock and examined the indicator lights. The landing gear engaged in a beautifully oiled and reassuring operation.
"We got 'em!"
Meillan nodded to his copilot. "We're on final approach for landing. Let traffic control know. What do you think the SOBs could do now to screw things up for us?"
"I'd mess with the brakes," the copilot said.
"Have control prepare the nets."
They held their breath until the plane grazed the runway. All the braking systems responded perfectly. The two men high-fived each other and directed the aircraft toward the terminal.
"Air France 912, Orly control. Taxi to gate 26. Way to nail that landing!"
At Paris Orly Airport, Pierre-André Noblecourt looked up from his travel bag and saw the red flashing lights of a fire truck and the yellow glow of a heavy-equipment vehicle. The two trucks were heading toward one of the runways. Several other vehicles, including a police car, soon followed. His scalp started tingling with sweat. He took off his baseball cap with the logo of the Olympique de Marseille soccer team but kept his sunglasses on.
Pierre-André watched as the Air France Airbus taxied toward the gate. A phone call from one of his bodyguards served as a rude reminder that he was in the midst of performing one of the worst acting roles of his career. The final act had begun to unfold three days earlier, when he found the photos on his smartphone. Emma had sent them from Kuala Lumpur. The chess match and the clock capable of measuring time down to a thousand-billionth of a second had leaped out at him like wild cats, with more force than his political defeats and the so-called scandals that had marked his overextended career.
"Did you have a safe trip, Mr. President?" It had been a year, six months, and six days since his term in office had ended, but as a former president of France, he would be called Mr. President for the remainder of his life. "The board shows that your flight has landed."
"It was an excellent flight. Thank you." In fact, he had never been on that plane.
A family walked by, and he lowered his head to avoid being recognized. The father was holding a small girl by the hand. Pierre-André thought of Béatrice. His granddaughter would be turning ten in three days and was growing up in a world he no longer understood. It was mostly because of her that, despite all his failures, he still aspired to be Europe's president — the continent's leader in a world that seemed to be spinning out of control.
"Want us to wait for you in the gangway, as usual?"
Pierre-André realized the ridiculousness of the situation. He quickly came up with a lie, as he had so many times before. He'd use his wife.
"Georgette is on her way to the airport. Meet her in the terminal, and wait for me there. I'll be fine. Don't worry."
Pierre-André ended the call and headed toward the arrival area. He paused by a window several feet from a crowd awaiting the flight's passengers and watched as the plane he should have been on approached the gate.
Just as he was about to start walking again, it happened. The emergency-exit chutes shot out from the plane. Pierre-André saw a man throw himself through one of the doors. Other passengers followed, and cries of alarm rose from the crowd. The still-moving plane was dragging all of its chutes on the ground. This couldn't possibly be a drill. Something was terribly wrong.
Then all hell broke loose. An orange ball of fire encircled the plane and hovered around it like a halo. In a matter of seconds, Flight 912 was merely a silhouette engulfed in flames. Men and women, many with children in their arms, streamed down the inflatable slides. A few tumbled down headfirst. Others were shrieking and flailing. Some had even caught fire. Seconds later, one of the chutes vanished in flames.
The crowd inside the building instinctively backed away from the windows, now hot to the touch. As they watched in horror, the plane's wings seemed to melt, and each engine exploded. The plane drifted from its course and crashed into a Saudi Arabian Air Lines A340, which blew up, sending a great mass of debris into the sky. Trucks and fuel-supply vehicles on the tarmac went up in flames.
In apocalyptic succession, one fire erupted after another. Three other planes burst into flames. A blast shattered the terminal windows. Seconds later the terminal itself was ablaze. Panicked, travelers, their friends and family members, concession workers, and all other airport and airline employees rushed toward the exits.
Pierre-André joined the flood of people. Police and private security workers tried to impose order, but it was too much. Men and women in smoking clothes streamed by them, and soon those fleeing the building were stampeding over the bodies on the floor.
His face blackened and sweaty, Pierre-André finally spotted his bodyguards, who, unbelievably, were making their way toward him. The sprinkler system, which had gone off as soon as the building caught fire, had soaked all of them.
"Mr. President, how did you get off that plane?"
"I was lucky. That's all. Let's get out of here."
The image of a flaming Orly International Airport looked ready to leap off the plasma screen at La Bélière and into the restaurant itself. The news anchor seemed at a loss for words. Against the fiery backdrop, a reporter was doing her best to describe the scene, but she, too, appeared to be stunned. Only an hour had passed since the late-morning disaster had started to unfold, but the news channels had already gotten their hands on cell phone videos shot by those who had escaped the terminal.
Luc pulled himself away from the images and eyed his two associates. John seemed to be holding his breath. Victoire was clutching the baby and staring at her father, Christophe, who had wrapped a protective arm around his new wife, Dara.
Victoire's mother had survived atrocities, but they had left permanent scars. After her death, Victoire's French father had remarried. Dara was also Cambodian. She was just a child when Phnom Penh fell, but she remembered the brutal regime. Nothing, it seemed, would release the hold those memories had on them.
Luc could see that Victoire was doing her best to stay composed. Motherhood had made her even more beautiful. Victoire's raven-colored hair was lustrous, and her black eyes were radiant. She was tall like her father and had an almost untouchable air. He had never been more in love with his boss's wife.
John, meanwhile, was throwing furtive glances at the street. He was smelling danger — and rightfully so. Luc could see the sweat stains under the arms of the jacket he had just given him. Luc loved John too. Completely. And that was the crux of the problem. Two impossible loves, one unfathomable profession, and three people who were still trying to figure things out. And now they had an innocent kid on their hands. Like John, Luc could see into the future. The fire would come lapping at the walls of Fermatown.
Luc reached over to Victoire and took his godson into his arms. Alexandre smiled, and Luc felt a surge of love. Before he could say a word to the baby he heard the notes of Ravel's Boléro — John's ringtone for the agency.
John hadn't even answered when another tune popped into Luc's brain: Glen Frey's "The Heat Is On."
John recognized the voice of Hubert de Méricourt, head of the agency at Les Invalides responsible for France's intelligence and counterintelligence.
"John, meet me at Jardin Catherine Labouré on the Rue de Babylone. Bring your team. I know you're celebrating your son's baptism, but we don't have a second to lose. I can't tell you any more over the phone."
John could feel the eyes of his family and friends on him. Victoire's father shook his head.
"Your child gets baptized just once in his life, John. Can't it wait?"
"They need us," John said.
"I suppose it's about Orly," Christophe replied.
"I don't know."
"Do they want all three of us?" Victoire asked.
Luc handed Alexandre to Roberta, a friend who lived at Number 7 on the Rue Fermat. Roberta was a kind of guardian angel in the Daguerre Village. Whenever a resident needed something, she was there, many times without even being asked.
"Do you mind?" John asked as Luc, Victoire, and he got up from their chairs.
"Go," Roberta answered. "And don't worry. He'll be fine with me. Take as long as you need."
The three kissed everyone good-bye and left La Bélière. Less than a minute later, they were in front of their touch-screen wall in the main room of Number 9 Rue Fermat. Each of them grabbed their crisis kit. An invitation from Méricourt was always the prelude to a cluster of shit storms — but it also guaranteed a certified check from Banque de France.
"What do you know about the Jardin Catherine Labouré?" John asked.
"It's a park with a playground and an arbor," Victoire responded. "Every mom in the neighborhood goes there. Kids can play all they want while the mothers talk."
"What's up with this spot?" Luc asked.
"I have no idea. It seems like an odd place to meet. I'll take my motorcycle. You guys take the car. We might need audio and visual."
John was making sure that Luc, the most tech-savvy member of the team — one who had no compunctions about cutting corners — had everything he needed. John had never stopped thanking his stars that Hubert de Méricourt had urged him to hire this lanky man with dark curly hair and skin as white as Carrara marble. Luc was at Méricourt's government agency at the time, but he clearly wasn't cut out for work as a bureaucrat. Méricourt knew talent when he saw it, and he didn't want Luc's to go to waste. Luc was quick, shrewd, and loyal — ideal for Fermatown. And he was game for anything. John and Victoire took to him right away.
"Where's Caresse?" Luc asked.
At that very moment, their Persian cat brushed against Luc's leg.
"She never does that to me," John complained.
"How long have you been married to Victoire? And you still don't know how to treat a female!"
"I beg your pardon! Victoire, set the man straight."
Victoire grinned. "Stop bickering, you guys." She skipped down the concrete staircase to Fermatown's garage. Two motorcycles, one car, and a fake taxi made up the fleet of these French privateers, agents the higher-ups in the French government called on when they didn't want to dirty their hands.
John trailed Victoire down the stairs and shook his head. Just how filthy would they be getting this time around?
John spotted Méricourt hunched in the shade of a wall a few feet from the park entrance on the Rue de Babylone. His former boss looked like he was bearing an enormous weight.
John parked his Triumph Thunderbird a few feet away as he scoped the landscape. Everything seemed normal. No undercover agents, no suspicious couples, no fogged-up windshields, no half-closed blinds hiding the barrel of a weapon or a directional microphone.
But he did note the cameras on the apartment buildings across the street. So that was why Méricourt was waiting off to the side and out of sight. John kept his helmet on to shield his face and warned Victoire and Luc, using his embedded mike. Méricourt looked relieved to see him.
"What's going on?"
"Pierre-André Noblecourt was just found hanging by his neck in his home office."
"Our former president?"
John could already see the flood of problems that this news would create. Méricourt cast a furtive glance in both directions before continuing. "His wife, Georgette, discovered the body. His office is on the top floor of their apartment on the other side of the park. Apparently, it was quite a sight."
"I can only imagine."
"She immediately called the president on his private line at the Élysée. He wants to know exactly what happened, and he wants the information now. As if there weren't enough to handle already, considering what's going on at Orly."
Excerpted from The Rare Earth Exchange by Bernard Besson, Sophie Weiner. Copyright © 2016 Le French Book. Excerpted by permission of Le French Book.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Complex spy story involving international cybercrimes. Smart, suspenseful, geeky, it will keep you on the edge of your seat. I introduced you to Bernard Besson in 2013 when I reviewed The Greenland Breach. Now an award-winning thriller writer, he is “a former top-level chief of staff of the French intelligence services, an eminent specialist in economic intelligence and Honorary General Controller of the French National Police. He was involved in dismantling Soviet spy rings in France and Western Europe when the USSR fell and has real inside knowledge from his work auditing intelligence services and the police.” So this guy knows what he is talking about in his novels! Like The Greenland Breach, The Rare Earth Exchange is a spy thriller set in the web of international terrorism and corruption. The book opens with a major plane accident: after having been hacked, an Airbus A340 coming from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, goes in flames after landing in Orly, Paris. John Spencer Larivière (already met in The Greenland Breach) and his wife Victoire are interrupted in the midst of their young son baptism celebration to investigate. The couple and their geeky friend Luc run Fermatown, a private intelligence agency. Then shortly after, former French president Noblecourt, who had pretended to be on that very flight, is discovered by his wife Georgette, hanging in his office. Suicide? Murder? Why? What’s really the connection between the Noblecourts and Malaysia? As the Fermatown team digs deeper, they found themselves stuck in a huge and very dangerous web, involving many countries, many high profile political figures (ambassadors, ministers of home and foreign affairs, defense ministers, plus a Chinese lawyer working on high-profile crimes), terrorists and crooks. Can they even trust Noblecourt’s wife, who seems to be lying? As for Claudine Montluzac, a police chief also investigating, it’s not until the very end that they’ll know for sure on which side she stands. The plot gets more and more involved. You’d better make a list of characters to keep track. There are also a lot of different groups: Chronosphere, a Paris-based company specializing in precision industrial clocks; G. Terres, an international organization to regulate rare-earths market; Palatinate, a powerful credit-rating agency). Yes, there’s a connection between all of these, and many more, such as for instance a kickback scheme related to the sale of French submarines to Malaysia. If you go over the hurdle of the complexity and multiplicity of actors involved, you will find the book very enjoyable, with all kinds of cool geeky details – for instance how to protect your phone from being detected. I discovered a lot about cybertechnology, cybercrimes and cyberterrorism. There’s so much out there we don’t even imagine could exist! I also learned about virtual autopsies, which I had never heard about before. And there were neat descriptions of Kuala Lumpur, though I’m not sure what I found out would give me the desire to visit.
Freelance spies John Spencer Laviviere and his partners Victorie (his wife), and Luc are called into an investigation by the government when a plane explodes upon landing at Orly. Along the way they find corruption that is more than just the usual suspects. I was sucked into this story from the beginning. It is a page turner. I wanted to know what was happening. There is a lot of technology in this story but it was easy to understand. I never felt lost as I was following the clues to the culprit. It is important to the story. I loved the different point-of-view from what I usually read. I liked how the three characters worked together. I also enjoyed how everyday life was interwoven into the story as Victorie was not happy about leaving her newborn to the care of others. The story was complicated enough to keep me interested but understandable that I never wanted to abandon the book because I was lost. The mystery was good. I did need the explanations at the end as they are wrapping up the case. I plan on reading more of this series. I absolutely loved it.
All the ingredients of a great book: compelling characters, suspense, terrorism, high-level government corruption and a great plot, are combined with some really off-beat elements to create a story that will stay with you. One of the characters is a ten-year-old girl, who is wise beyond her years. She provides a dose of wisdom and morality, and a surprise at the end. The elements of the plot involve some very high-tech features of the "corruption-proof" exchange for minerals used in production of modern electronics, which create an astonishing ending. Yet human greed prevails over the highest of technologies.