With his friend and former CIA agent, Tom Green, Marston heads for Barcelona. The two sleuths identify the man last seen with the girl, break into his house, and encounter a shocking scene: Bart Denum, standing over the dead and battered body of their mysterious stranger. Though Bart protests his innocence, under the damning circumstances, Spanish authorities arrest him for murder.
The two American investigators are faced with their biggest challenge ever: find the real killer, prove Bart’s innocence, and locate his missing daughter—without getting killed along the way.
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The Reluctant Matador
A Hugo Marston Novel
By MARK PRYOR
Prometheus BooksCopyright © 2015 Mark Pryor
All rights reserved.
A gentle breeze greeted Hugo Marston as he stepped out of his apartment building onto an empty Rue Jacob. At seven a.m. on a Sunday, the tourists and working people of Paris were still sleeping, though Hugo knew the calm and quiet wouldn't last much more than an hour.
He felt a rumble in his stomach, already picturing the treat he'd planned: pancakes, maple syrup, bacon, sausages.... He did this once or twice a year—the Texan in him yearning for a ranch-sized breakfast to start an otherwise empty weekend. He tucked his hands in his pockets and started to stroll toward the River Seine, the early-morning air clean and invigorating.
It didn't take long, though, for a sliver of impatience to tug at him as he walked. This breakfast wasn't just for himself; it was a chance to check in with the young lady who was the closest thing he had to a daughter. A young lady who was a stranger to Paris and, unless he'd read her tone wrong, a young lady in some measure of trouble.
Amy was in Paris for the same reason any nineteen-year-old American girl might be—to see the sights and make her fortune. She was the daughter of Hugo's friend and former colleague, Bart Denum. Stepdaughter, to be precise. Her last name was Dreiss, not Denum, but in every way other than legal, she was Denum's baby girl. Hugo had come to know her as a result of an accident that had savaged his life and theirs—Hugo's first wife, Ellie, had been a passenger in the car Amy's mother was driving when they were hit by a pickup truck. The old man driving it hadn't seen the stop light, or perhaps had ignored it. Police said that the man was sober, just old, and that was no crime.
Old or not, crime or not, Hugo had lost the love of his life that evening, and Amy had lost her mother. It was a shared tragedy that brought Bart and Hugo closer and Amy deeper into Hugo's world. She was the sweet, pretty girl flitting in and out of his life whenever he and Denum hung out on weekends and holidays, the teenager who never became surly, just hugged a little less. She wasn't just Denum's little angel, she was his entire world, and Hugo adored her, too.
Hugo had spent a few minutes with Amy the week she'd come to Paris. It was the first time he'd seen her in more than three years, and he was startled by how much she'd changed, how she'd blossomed from a spidery, awkward teenager into a beautiful young woman. They'd had coffee in Montmartre, sitting outside a café that sprawled onto a cobbled street, one of the narrow, winding roads that snaked up toward Sacré-Coeur Basilica. She'd been as bubbly as he remembered, but he also had the sense she was there to explore on her own, and that Hugo was the surrogate father she didn't need watching over her shoulder. After half an hour, Hugo gave her his business card, scribbled his cell number and home address on the back.
"Go have fun, Amy," he said. "I'll get the coffee. You can get the next one when you get a job."
She took the card. "Thanks, Hugo."
"Call if you need anything. Anything at all. Or just show up; I'm always home."
"Not much of a party animal, huh?"
"No, but that reminds me. If you show up, you might meet Tom."
"Boyfriend?" She winked.
"Feels like it sometimes. He's an old friend from my FBI days. Your dad knows him, I think. Anyway, let's just say he's the wild one. Don't lend him money or buy him a drink."
"He sounds like fun."
"Tom is ... fun." Hugo laughed. "But things never end up where you think they will. You can trust him with your life, no doubt, but if you go out partying with him, you usually end up having to."
Her laughter tinkled and several men nearby eyed her with undisguised interest. She reached over and kissed his cheek. "I'll call if I need anything, I promise."
She had called, five days ago. She wouldn't tell him why or what she wanted, only that she needed to talk to him about something that she couldn't tell her dad, not yet. Hugo hadn't been comfortable with that but had suggested that they meet at a restaurant appropriately named Breakfast in America. She agreed but made him promise not to tell Bart anything, not until they'd spoken.
He'd almost broken that promise. Two texts and one phone call to confirm their meeting had gone unanswered. But then, yesterday, she sent one brief e-mail saying she'd be there, so he decided to wait and talk to her at breakfast. No need to panic Bart if she'd just lost her phone. He just hoped she'd show.
As he got close to the river, Hugo noticed a crowd gathered at the end of the Pont de l'Alma, their shouts quickening his step as he approached the bridge. He scanned the area to spot the problem but saw only the panicked faces of the crowd. He saw some people reaching for cell phones while others pointed down to the water. Two men broke from the group and started for the steps that led down to the river, and instinctively Hugo broke into a run. The three reached the bottom of the steps at the same time and one of them shouted at Hugo in French, telling him what he'd already guessed.
"There's someone in the water."
"Alive?" Hugo asked.
Neither man responded, and in seconds they were at the edge of the walkway, leaning over the metal railing as all three peered down into the murky water of the Seine. At first Hugo saw nothing, heard only the people on the bridge above shouting and the panting of the two men beside him. The water gave off a brackish, stale odor, and he wrinkled his nose.
Then he saw it—a shadow beneath the surface, barely three feet from the walkway. One of the other men, a young, black man in jeans and a brown leather jacket, saw it, too. The man hopped over the railing and crouched on the lip of concrete beside the water, one hand on a vertical rail and the other reaching out toward the object.
"I thought I saw movement, before we came down," the second man said. He was white and in his fifties, gray-haired but trim, wearing a blue suit with no tie. Expensive leather gloves poked out of his jacket pocket.
"From the bridge?" Hugo asked.
"I can't reach," the black man said, "grab my wrist so I can lean farther out."
The water was unusually high thanks to a wet summer in Burgundy, where the Seine began its journey. Here, in Paris, the river lapped at its artificial banks, threatening to spill over, and yet it seemed to Hugo the waters wanted to hang on to their human prize, taunting the rescuers by keeping the black shape out of their reach.
"I have a better idea," Hugo said. He slipped off his belt and ran the end through the buckle to make a short lasso. His eyes scanned the water, hoping to see a splash, a wriggle, any movement at all. Nothing. He handed the belt over anyway.
The young man leaned out and flicked the loop of the belt toward the form in the water, but they all recoiled as the body suddenly rolled over.
"Vite!" the older man said. "He's still alive!"
On his third attempt, the younger man splashed the water and grabbed an arm, pulling the unmoving figure to the bank. The three of them groaned and strained to pull the limp body up over the railing and lay it down on the concrete walkway.
"Merde, it's a woman," the young man said.
A naked woman, with dark-brown skin that had grayed with cold and exposure to the water. Hugo reached down and put his fingers on her throat, concentrating on feeling a pulse. His companions remained kneeling beside her body, staring. Staring not because the girl was naked, Hugo knew, but because the scene was surreal. Like him, they'd probably been out walking before the city woke, enjoying the cool October morning and savoring the gentle breeze playing up from the Seine. And now they were looking at a still, lifeless, young woman, battered and drowned by the river that until now had been an object of beauty to them.
"She's dead?" the older man whispered.
"Oui," Hugo said. He suspected she'd been dead for some time, her body cold and not just from the water. That claylike cold that all corpses possessed, the human body returning to its natural state, to the earth. Of the earth.
"Are you sure?" asked the younger man. "She moved in the water, we saw her. We should try CPR."
"No, it won't help," Hugo said. "She's gone. The movement was the current or maybe gas escaping from her body. A fish bumping her even, but she's dead for sure. And in case this isn't an accident, it's best we touch her as little as possible."
Hugo heard the distant wail of sirens, the cavalry arriving much too late on this occasion. He leaned over the body, careful not to touch any part of her, his FBI instincts kicking in, the policeman in him wanting to get a start on finding out how this young woman died. Maybe an accident, maybe suicide. Or possibly murder, his own field of expertise. He'd left that world behind when he joined the State Department to head up security at the US Embassies in London and now Paris. Or so he thought. Several times he'd been drawn back to his former life, been forced to use the skills he'd learned at the behavioral-sciences unit in Quantico to track down a killer. He had no great desire to do it again and would be happy to turn things over to the Brigade Criminelle, Paris's force responsible for handling kidnappings, arson, and murder. Hugo checked himself as he always did: If this is murder.
To that end, he couldn't help but look more closely. The girl appeared to be twenty years old, at most. With the drawn-down nature of death, it was hard to be sure, but Hugo thought she showed signs of malnutrition. He looked at the older man next to him.
"Can I borrow your gloves?" Hugo asked.
"My gloves? Why?"
"I'm a cop. I want to check something."
The man handed them over, eyeing Hugo uncertainly. "Shouldn't you wait for them?" He jerked his head toward the swelling sound of the sirens.
"Probably," Hugo muttered, taking the gloves. He pulled them on and picked up the girl's left arm, studying it carefully. He did the same with the right, then rolled her onto her side.
"Monsieur, s'il vous plaît, leave her alone!" The voice came from behind him and was a command, not a request. Hugo turned to see two uniformed flics approaching. He and the two other men moved away from the body.
"What happened here?" The cop in charge looked to be in his fifties, with a physique that suggested he exercised every day of his life.
His head was bald and his eyes were suspicious. His colleague was half his age, slight and pale, and couldn't keep his eyes off the dead form on the riverwalk. A rookie, Hugo thought.
"They saw the body in the water, we just pulled her out," Hugo said.
"You're certain she's dead?"
The cop knelt beside the body to check for himself. "Then why were you touching her?"
Hugo reached into his pocket and pulled out his embassy credentials. "I didn't mean to interfere, monsieur, I'm a policeman at heart and saw a few things that concerned me. I used gloves and didn't contaminate the body, I assure you."
"You better hope not." The senior cop frowned and plucked Hugo's credentials from his hand. He scrutinized them for a moment, then looked up. "Attendez, you're Hugo Marston?"
The flic broke into a grin and offered his hand. "I'm Jules Agard. I'm a friend of Camille Lerens; she's told me all about you."
Hugo shook the man's hand and said, "Nice to meet you, Jules."
"Likewise. She seems to think you're some kind of crime-solving superhero."
Hugo laughed. "Then she doesn't know me very well, but thanks. How is she? I've not seen her for a couple of weeks and we're overdue a coffee, or something stronger."
He'd met Lieutenant Lerens during a murder investigation the previous year. She was, without doubt, one of the brightest and toughest flics in Paris. She had to be because, as far as Hugo knew, she was the only transgender cop in the city. Hugo knew that she still had problems with some older policemen, but her immediate superiors had quickly realized that her abilities and her dedication to her job were in no way related to her gender, and the institutional prejudice that initially blocked her career path eventually crumbled and let her progress up the ranks. Her wicked sense of humor did her no harm, either.
"You should call her," Agard said. "She spent last night in hospital after being assaulted by a drunk."
"Vraiment? Is she okay?"
"A few bumps and bruises. The mec has a few himself, as well as a serious charge to face."
"Good," said Hugo. "It wasn't to do with her ..."
"Non," Agard said. "Some drunk English tourist. So, what do we have here?" He turned to his colleague. "Don't just stare, Bellard, get out your notebook and take some statements."
"Fresh out of the academy," Agard said under his breath. "Alors, you said you saw something that concerned you."
"Yes. I'm guessing this is murder."
"She's been in the water a while, a day maybe. The current has pulled her clothes off, but she wasn't wearing much to begin with."
"How do you know?"
"Because the current's not strong enough to pull off pants. Also, because of the marks on her body."
Agard glanced over at the girl. "Explain."
"She looks malnourished—you can almost see her hip bones. I think the medical examiner will also find antemortem bruising, though I can't be sure because of her skin color and the time in the water."
"You mean she was beaten?"
"Which indicates murder."
"Right," Hugo said. "Although her face isn't marked and she has no defensive wounds on her hands or forearms. But there's something else, have a look." Both men crouched beside the body. "You have proper gloves?" Hugo asked.
"Oui." Agard reached into a back pocket and pulled on pale-blue surgical gloves.
"Good. Roll her onto her side."
With a grunt, Agard tipped the girl's body to reveal her back.
"What am I looking at? Those circles?"
"Yes. Cigarette burns would be my guess."
"Merde, domestic abuse. That makes me so angry, and look how many there are. She was basically tortured before being killed, poor girl."
"Yes, I'm afraid she was."
"Merci, Hugo. I'll make a note of all this. We'll find the husband or boyfriend who did this, I promise."
They shook hands, and Hugo resumed his walk, trying to shake off the image of the young woman. But as he crossed the bridge, the river beneath him looked gray and slick, cold and lethal, utterly devoid of mercy for even a poor, tortured girl. He shivered as a breeze caressed his neck, and he quickened his stride.
As he turned onto Rue de Rivoli, Hugo's phone vibrated in his pocket. He checked the display, and immediately his spirits lifted. It was Claudia, the only woman he'd felt anything for since his divorce. Claudia, the bright-eyed reporter, daughter of French nobility, classy, sexy, and, Hugo suspected, not quite as interested in him as he was in her.
"Hugo, how are you?"
"Fine. On my way to breakfast but I got waylaid."
"Breakfast by yourself ?"
"No. The daughter of an old friend is over here looking for work; I'm meeting her at the restaurant."
"Oh, that's nice. What kind of work?"
"Runway or commercial?"
"No clue. They're different career paths?"
Her laughter was soft and made him long to see her. "Oh Hugo, you're so cute. I do miss you."
"Then join us."
"Where are you going?"
"I'm having my biannual craving, so we're meeting at Breakfast in America."
"I wish I could, but I have plans. Although, the most handsome man in Paris, off to breakfast with a model. I should probably interfere for my own interests."
"Didn't know you still had an interest," Hugo said, suddenly feeling like a needy teenager. "Sorry, that came out wrong."
Claudia laughed again. "Silly. That's why I was calling. I'd like to see you. Have drinks then dinner, spend some time together."
"I would like that, very much."
"Tonight?" she asked.
"Tonight is perfect."
"I'll come by your apartment at seven, we can take a stroll and choose somewhere along the way."
Excerpted from The Reluctant Matador by MARK PRYOR. Copyright © 2015 Mark Pryor. Excerpted by permission of Prometheus Books.
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
I am a BIG fan of Hugo Marston. I've read all the previous books. They are GREAT. This one just didn't hold my interest. I finally got through it, but, while it is good, it's the least interesting of all the Mark Pryor books. I'll keep buying them because Hugh Marston is just the BEST, just not this one so much.