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By Mark Sullivan
Read by Jay Snyder
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When Jack Morgan stops by Private’s Paris office, he envisions a quick hello during an otherwise relaxing trip. But Jack is quickly pressed into duty after getting a call from his client Sherman Wilkerson, asking Jack to track down his young granddaughter, who is on the run from a brutal drug dealer. Before Jack can locate her, several members of France’s cultural elite are found dead-murdered in stunning, symbolic fashion. The only link between the crimes is a mysterious graffiti tag. As religious and ethnic tensions simmer in the City of Lights, only Jack and his Private team can connect the dots before the smoldering powder keg explodes.
18th Arrondissement, Paris
April 6, 12:30 a.m.
THE MESSENGER BAG pressed tight to his hip, the hood of his black sweatshirt up, and a black-and-white checked kaffiyeh scarf looped around his swarthy neck, Epée walked quickly down the Rue Marcadet.
His name meant sword in French—more particularly, a duel sword, which is how he thought of himself that night.
I am declaring war here, Epée thought. The Sword marks the first battleground.
The shabby area around him was sparsely traveled that late, and he was careful not to look up at the few people who passed him on the sidewalk near the corner with the Boulevard Barbès. The shops that lined both sides of the boulevard were dark, but lights flickered in the apartment windows above. Somewhere a baby was crying. Somewhere Middle Eastern music was playing.
Epée looked to his north beyond an Islamic bookstore, a tailor’s shop that sold robes, and the storefront office of FEZ Couriers, a messenger service. She was right where he remembered her from his scouting trip the week before.
She’s big enough, he thought, and her skin is flawless.
In fact, she’s perfect. I couldn’t find one better.
Seeing that the sidewalks were vacant for blocks in either direction, Epée reached down, tugged the kaffiyeh scarf up over his lower face, and began to jog toward his target. Just past the closed doors to a mosque, he skidded to a stop, reached in his messenger bag, and snatched two cans of spray paint.
With a can in each hand, he sprayed the mosque wall in big, looping movements that started high over his head and finished at his toes. In seconds, he was done and feeling the bittersweet ecstasy of the spent artist.
The graffiti was his design, bloodred and dripping. Despite the swooping, stylized letters, there was no doubt what the tag said:
A car engine started down the street to his south. Headlights flashed on and found Epée, who dropped the cans and took off like a spooked deer.
The engine roared. Tires squealed. Headlights slashed. A Klaxon began whooping, and the scene was cast in flashing blue.
Fucking Paris police were watching the place!
Epée sprinted diagonally across the boulevard, between two parked cars, and onto the opposite sidewalk. The tagger was uncommonly fast, but no man could outrun a police car in a straight-line race.
Then again, Epée had no intention of moving in a straight line. An expert in parkour, the French art of urban obstacle course running, he saw everything in the street, high and low, as a potential ally.
The police car was almost abreast of him. Another patrol car appeared from where Barbès meets the Boulevard Ornano. It raced right at Epée. His remarkable brain saw angles, vectors, and converging speeds as if they were opaque readouts on a jet fighter pilot’s visor.
The unmarked car behind him now came into his peripheral vision. Epée cut hard off the sidewalk toward the vehicle’s front bumper. He jumped fluidly, gracefully, but full of intent and precision. Tires screeched.
The tagger’s rubber soles found the bumper. His body and legs coiled into it, and then sprang off. The move threw him forward through the air, tucked like a downhill ski racer off a jump.
Epée landed, chest forward, his legs churning in perfect cadence with the momentum he’d created, not in retreat at all. He charged the oncoming car, played chicken with it as his mind spun. Would they run a guy down for tagging? He didn’t think so. But stranger things had happened.
Stranger things did happen. Instead of braking, the cop accelerated. Epée could hear the other car coming fast as well, as if they meant to hit him front and back, cut him in half.
Epée leaped into the air like a triple jumper. His left foot tapped the hood of the oncoming police car, his right foot caressed its flashing blue lights, and both feet absorbed the landing a split second before the two police cars crashed head-on and just behind him.
Epée had made his escape look as elegant as a ballet solo, but he wasn’t taking any chances and sprinted hard for blocks before slowing on a quiet street.
He saw a brand-new white BMW parked in the middle of the block, saw that the street was deserted, and took the opportunity to spray-paint the hood with the same bloodred graffiti tag.
Two down, the Sword thought as he moved on. Only forty-eight to go.
April in Paris
April 6, 3:30 p.m.
“THE SECRET TO understanding Parisians, Jack, is to see that they are almost the exact opposite of people in Los Angeles,” said the big bear of a man sitting across from me. “In L.A., children are raised to be optimistic, full of life, friendly. People who grow up in Paris, however, are taught the value of melancholy and an unwavering belief in the superiority of suffering. It’s why they have a reputation for being rude. It’s to make you as uncomfortable as they are, and they honestly believe they are doing you a favor.”
It was late afternoon, a warm, gorgeous spring day in the French capital, and Louis Langlois and I were sitting outside Taverne Henri IV in the Place Dauphine, well into our second glasses of excellent Bordeaux.
I smiled and said, “It can’t be that bad.”
Amused, Louis shook his head and said, “It is a fact that having fun, laughing, and generally enjoying life in Paris is a clear indication of latent insanity, or at least that you are visiting from an inferior place, which means anywhere outside the city limits.”
“C’mon,” I said, chuckling now. “People seem genuinely nice. Even the waiters have been great so far.”
With a dismissive flip of his hand, he said, “They seem nice because, at long last, they understand that Paris is the number one tourist destination in the world, and that tourism is the biggest moneymaker in the city. At the same time, they know you are a tourist from America—the land of the absurdly obese, the absurdly wealthy, and the absurdly ignorant—and they hope you give them an absurdly big tip. You must believe me, Jack. Deep inside, Parisians are not enjoying themselves and find it upsetting when others appear overly happy.”
I raised my eyebrows skeptically.
“Don’t believe me?” he said. “Watch.”
Louis threw back his head and began roaring with laughter. The laugh seemed to seize control of him, and shook down through his entire body as if he were scratching his back with it.
To my surprise and amusement, the patrons around us, and even the waitress who’d just delivered our wine, were now glancing sidelong at him. That only encouraged Louis, who started howling and slapping his thigh so hard tears streamed down his face. I couldn’t help it and started laughing too. The people around us were gaping openly or sniffing at us now, as if we were refugees from a funny farm.
At last, Louis calmed down and wiped away the tears, and when the café had returned to normalcy, he murmured, “What did I tell you? I use this—laughter—to upset suspects many times. To the people of Paris, a policeman who sees humor in everything, he must be crazy. He must be dangerous. He must be feared.”
I held up my hands in surrender. “Your city, Louis.”
“My adopted city,” he said, holding up a finger. “I do not think this way, but I understand it well.”
Thirty years ago, Louis left his home in Nice in the south of France and joined the French National Police. His extraordinary emotional intelligence, his understanding of the French people, and his unorthodox investigative instincts had propelled him swiftly into a job in Paris with La Crim, an elite investigative force similar to the major case units of the New York and L.A. police departments.
For twenty-nine years, Louis served with distinction at La Crim. The day before his retirement, I offered him a job at three times his old pay. He now ran the Paris office of Private, a global security and investigative agency I founded and own.
You’ll hear people refer to Private as “the Pinkertons of the twenty-first century.” I don’t know if we warrant that high praise, but it’s flattering, and the reputation has helped us grow by leaps and bounds over the last few years, especially overseas, which causes me to travel more than I’d like.
I’d been visiting the Berlin office for a few days and arrived in Paris the evening before. After a series of meetings with the local staff during the day, Louis suggested we go out for a few drinks and then a fine meal. That brilliant idea had brought us to one of his favorite cafés and led him to begin to explain to me the intricate mysteries of Paris, its citizens, and their way of thinking.
Before Louis could move on to another subject, his cell phone rang. He frowned and said, “I asked them not to call me unless it was important.”
“No worries,” I said, and took another sip of wine.
Even if the Parisians weren’t happy, I was. Louis Langlois was a funny guy and Paris was still one of the most beautiful cities on earth, filled with interesting and sometimes shocking people, art, and food. In an hour or two, I’d no doubt be eating an incredible meal, and probably laughing a whole lot more. Life, for the foreseeable future, looked very good.
And then it didn’t.
Louis listened to his phone, nodded, and said, “Of course I remember you, Monsieur Wilkerson. How can Private Paris be of help?”
Wilkerson? The only Wilkerson I knew was a client who lived in Malibu.
I mouthed, “Sherman Wilkerson?”
Louis nodded and said into the phone, “Would you rather talk with Jack Morgan? He’s right here.”
He handed me the phone. Now, the last time I’d heard from Sherman Wilkerson like this, out of the blue, there were four dead bodies on the beach below his house. I admit that there were nerves in my voice when I said, “Sherman?”
“What are you doing in Paris, Jack?” Wilkerson demanded.
“Visiting one of my fastest-growing offices.”
Sherman Wilkerson was a no-nonsense engineer who’d built a wildly successful industrial design company. By nature he dealt with facts and often understated his opinion of things. So I was surprised when he said in a shaky voice, “Maybe there is a God after all.”
“You’ve got a problem in Paris?” I asked.
“My only granddaughter, Kimberly. Kimberly Kopchinski,” Wilkerson replied. “I just got off the phone with her—first call in more than two years. She’s in an apartment outside Paris and says there are drug dealers hunting for her, trying to kill her. She sounded petrified, and begged me to send someone to save her. Then the line went dead and now I can’t reach her. Can you go make sure she’s safe? I’ve got the address.”
“Of course,” I said, signaling to Louis to pay the bill. “How do we find her?”
Wilkerson read me out an address.
I wrote it down and said, “Can you text me a photograph? And tell me about her? College student? Businesswoman?”
Louis laid down cash on the table and gave me the thumbs-up during a long pause.
“Sherman?” I said, standing. “Are you there?”
“I honestly don’t know what Kim’s been doing the past two years, and I know little of her life over the past five,” Wilkerson admitted as we left the café and Louis called for a car. “Her parents—my daughter, Pam, and her husband, Tim—they died in a boating accident six years ago.”
“I remember you telling me that,” I said. “Sad.”
“Very. Kim was in her senior year at USC, and back from a junior year in France, when it happened. She was as devastated as we were. Long story short, she inherited a bit of money along with a trust, and she turned wild child. She barely graduated. When she did, she went straight back to France. For a time I know she was working for the Cannes Film Festival organizers. We tried to stay in touch, but we heard from her less and less. Before today, there was a Christmas card from Monaco, and before that, a condolence card when my wife died.”
The car pulled up. Louis opened the door, and I climbed in, saying, “Don’t worry, Sherman. We’re on our way.”
“Thank you, Jack. You’ll call when you have her?”
“Protect her, Jack. I beg you,” Wilkerson said. “She’s my only grandchild—my only living relative, really.”
“You’ve got nothing to worry about,” I said, and hung up.
After filling Louis in on the conversation, I pushed the address I’d written on a napkin over to him. “Know it?”
Louis put his reading glasses on and studied it, and his nostrils flared as if he’d scented something foul. Then he looked up at me and with a definite edge in his voice said, “Look up trouble and danger in a French dictionary, and you get a picture of this place.”
Pantin, northeastern suburbs of Paris
HOW CAN I make you burn?
How do I make you come alive like a creature from hell’s fire?
In what used to be a linen factory along the Canal de l’Ourcq, these questions consumed the woman standing on scaffolding, absently stroking her long braid of mahogany hair, and studying the giant’s skeleton.
She was in her midthirties, with dusky skin and haunting pewter eyes, and she wore clothes that were completely at odds with her exotic beauty: black steel-toe work boots, double-faced and riveted canvas pants, and a flame-resistant cape and apron over a heavy denim shirt.
She turned from the skeleton, still unsure how it was all going to work, and looked for answers among the various materials she’d bought or salvaged and transported to the building. In the last month she’d amassed two tons of number 9 rebar in twenty-foot lengths. She had sections of battered steel conduit torn from culverts during a big highway job out toward Reims. And she had stacks of scrap sheet metal, angle iron, and galvanized pipe gathered from junkyards and metal recycling plants across northern France.
The massive steel posts came from an old engine repair shop in Orléans. They were already standing, four of them anchor-bolted into the cement floor. I beams had been hoisted and pinned in place as well, forming an open-sided rectangular box forty-five feet long, twenty-five feet wide, and thirty feet high. From a structural point of view, the heavy work was over. The superstructure of the skeleton was standing. And already she could see the vague dimensions of what was to come forming in her—
“Haja!” a man’s voice called.
Haja startled and looked around to see a rugged man in his late thirties emerge from a door in the corner. Thick neck, bronze skin, short black hair. He carried a gym bag and was dressed in a sweat suit. Cleats hung around his neck.
“Up here, Émile,” she called.
Émile Sauvage spotted her and said, “Shouldn’t you be getting ready for your date?”
“Henri won’t be ready until nine,” she said. “I have plenty of time.”
“You’ll text when you’re inside?”
“I remember the plan,” she said.
“I’ll see you there.”
“I look forward to it, chéri,” she said. “AB-16 at last.”
Sauvage smiled. “AB-16 at long last.”
Haja blew him a kiss and watched him go out the main door. She heard the bolt thrown before she turned again to look at the skeleton.
Seeing it from this new angle, she had a sudden, intense inspiration, saw how she might begin the process of creation. Rushing about now, feeling feverish, Haja climbed down off the scaffolding. She grabbed a pair of heavy bolt cutters and snipped off several lengths of rebar. She set them on the floor next to the near post, and then wheeled over the welding tanks, hose, and torch.
Putting on the helmet and shield, she took up the torch and the striker, and then turned on the oxygen and acetylene gas and ignited the hissing mixture. Even through the smoked glass, the flame was searing in its intensity.
I can sculpt you, she thought. I can create you from scrap.
But how do I make you burn like this welding torch?
How do I create an apocalyptic vision that France will never, ever forget?
Montfermeil, eastern suburbs of Paris
SHORTLY AFTER LOUIS Langlois and I spoke with Sherman Wilkerson we headed east out of Paris in workmen’s blue jumpsuits that featured the logo of a bogus plumbing company. Louis drove a Mia electric-powered delivery vehicle, which looked like a minivan back home, only much smaller. The tiny van had the same fake plumbing logo painted on the rear panels and back door.
Louis said he used the Mia and the plumbing disguises often during surveillance jobs, but tonight we were using them to stay alive.
“The areas around the Bondy Forest have always been places of poverty, crime, and violence,” Louis explained. “You’ve read Les Misérables?”
“Years ago,” I said. “But I saw the movie recently.”
“Okay,” he said. “That scene where Jean Valjean meets Cosette getting water? The inn where the Thénardiers robbed their customers? All in Montfermeil. It looks different today, of course, but the dark spirit of the place continues. Montfermeil is like your Bronx was in the nineteen seventies, or South Central L.A. in the nineties: high unemployment, high crime rate, and lots of gangs, drug dealers, and violence. Add an angry Muslim and young immigrant population, and it’s unimaginable to me why Mademoiselle Kopchinski would take refuge in Les Bosquets—one of the worst housing projects in France.”
I shrugged. “We’ll find out, I guess. You’re sure about the plumbers’ gear being the right way to go?”
“Bien sûr. Everybody needs the plumber at some time, in some emergency. Non? Plumbers can come and go at all hours and no one thinks anything of it other than some poor bastard has a backed up toilet. And plumbers tend not to get hassled even in places like Les Bosquets. Why is that? Because everyone needs the plumber! Someone shakes the plumber down, and soon no plumbers will come, and no one wants that. Not even there.”
“This wouldn’t fly in the States,” I said, gesturing at the full jumpsuit. “People would know we weren’t plumbers.”
Louis seemed taken aback by that. “How would they know?”
“No American plumber would wear a coverall like this. If they did, they couldn’t show their ass crack, and that’s a requirement in the States.”
Louis glanced, and then laughed. “This is true?”
My cell phone buzzed, alerting me to a text. It was from Sherman Wilkerson and included a photograph of a pretty young woman with sad eyes sitting at a bar. At a red light I showed it to Langlois, saying, “It’s the most recent picture of her Sherman’s got. He said it’s at least four years old.”
“As a rule I don’t like babysitting jobs,” Langlois said.
“Neither do I,” I agreed, pocketing the phone. “But when a client like Sherman asks Private to look after his granddaughter, we answer.”
Twenty minutes later, and less than eleven miles from the chic streets and genteel parks of central Paris, we entered a world apart. Out the van’s window, the area didn’t look too bad at night. It kind of reminded me of East Berlin, with big clusters of drab, uniform, state-designed high-rise apartment buildings—a communist’s decaying vision of ideal housing.
Then I started seeing the graffiti. “Fuck the police” was a common theme. So were images of faceless men in dark hoods with flames painted behind them and Arabic scrawled above them.
“Was this project part of those riots a few years back?” I asked.
“Les Bosquets was in the thick of it,” Louis confirmed. “And it’s home to a vicious gang that specializes in targeting tourists who take the train from de Gaulle to Paris. A few months ago, they put a car on the tracks to stop a train holding more than a hundred Japanese visitors, then went on board and robbed everyone at gunpoint.”
“Yes, but there are reasons,” Louis replied. “Back in the sixties and seventies, when France was on the up economically, we needed labor, so they allowed anyone from a current or former French colony to immigrate here. They built the projects, and a generation later the economy busts, and the immigrants stay on, having children, lots of children. Fifty percent of the population out here is younger than twenty-five. And they can’t find jobs. So they live in terrible conditions, with no purpose. It’s a recipe for disaster for everyone involved.”
“Can’t they work their way out of it through school?” I asked.
Louis wagged a finger at me and said, “You are thinking of the States again, Jack. In France, it is not the same. There are proven paths to power here—the right schools, the right friends—and these paths are shut off to the immigrants. Worse, there is no public transportation in these areas. Without a car, you go nowhere. You’re trapped. You get angry. You explode.”
Louis flicked his chin toward the windshield. “There it is. Les Bosquets.”
The project consisted of eight decaying high-rise apartment buildings. Clotheslines hung from windows, as did immigrants of all ages and skin colors. Louis pulled over on the Avenue Clichy-sous-Bois.
He opened the glove compartment, got out a Glock 19, and handed it to me.
“I’m not licensed to carry this in France,” I said.
“You’re not a licensed French plumber either, Jack,” Louis said. “Put it in your pocket, and let me do the talking.”
It’s hard to argue with a guy who knows his turf as well as Louis. I decided to trust his judgment and nodded. We got out and grabbed toolboxes and flashlights from the rear hatchback. Men across the street had checked us out when we pulled up, but now they were ignoring us.
“You see?” Louis muttered as we headed down the road that ran north into the complex. “Everyone needs us, even if we don’t show the butt cracks.”
THE HOOKER, THE props, the locks, and the flankers were tight in the scrum when the eighth man joined them, and the battle began.
On a pitch in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower, the scrum half player snatched up the rugby ball and pitched it to the fly, who sprinted madly to the outside of a defensive mob in full pursuit. The fly passed the ball to the inside center, who took a hit, but not before he lobbed the ball on to Émile Sauvage.
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