CHAPTER SEVEN

I charged through the crowd to the door of the kitchen and slammed it open, knocking three people out of the way. There was a crowd there, one that had heard the hubbub from the dining room and had come to the window in the kitchen door to see what was going on.

I scanned the faces. “Where’s Henri?” I roared in English, then had to do it again in French.

Two of them pointed toward the door to the stairway that led down to the employees’ dressing room and entrance to the hotel. World Hotels Inc. didn’t want the help mingling with the paying guests.

Down the stairs I went as fast as I could go. I certainly didn’t know if it was Henri Stehle that Marisa looked at with loathing, but if he didn’t know her from Eve, he wouldn’t have rabbited for the underbrush when we locked eyes.

He wasn’t in the male employees’ dressing room. There was a man there dressing for the desk, so I asked, “Henri?”

He shook his head no.

I slammed into the women’s. Two startled females. One sucked in a chestful of air and screamed. It was a nice effort, a real ear-splitter. I asked the other, “Henri?”

She shook her head, so I split. There were two offices on the hallway. I tried the door of the first, which was the employment office. Locked.

I made a fist and punched out the glass, then opened the door and looked around the space. No people.

The second office, payroll, I think, was also locked. If Henri wasn’t in there, he was quickly getting away. I ran down the hallway and out the door to the street.

He was running, maybe a hundred feet away, really booking it. Obviously he hadn’t planned on a fast getaway.

I sprinted after him.

Now, I wasn’t stupid enough to think, just because Abu Qasim’s natural daughter made a face at this guy, that he had poisoned her husband. Oh, no! For all I knew, this guy was a Mossad agent, and the daughter of the worst al-Qaeda scumbag west of Baghdad recognized his nasty, infidel face.

There were a few people on the street, light traffic, and the people turned to stare at Stehle, then me, pounding along.

Honestly, when I saw ol’ Jean Petrou going down, I thought that his lovely wife had probably poisoned him. After all, she was going to be a seriously rich widow if they buried Jean in a few days, and they were recently separated because they didn’t like living together. She might be able to work up a tear for Jean’s funeral; then again, maybe not.

These thoughts went through my empty head as I thundered down the street after the fleeing Henri Stehle. No doubt he was cussing me as an ungrateful wretch — and he’d be right.

I was gaining on him. I’m no sprinter, but I have long legs and I work out, and I was closing on the guy.

Behind me I heard the shrill tweet of a police whistle. Stehle didn’t stop, so I didn’t.

I wondered if he was armed. I wasn’t, and I’m not bulletproof.

I had closed the distance to maybe twenty-five feet when he went around a corner. I took it wide, just in case he wanted to stop and take a wild punch as I came pounding along.

He didn’t swing. He was jumping in the back seat of a sedan. He didn’t have the door closed, but the car was already in motion. I leaped, caught at the door to prevent it from closing.

He looked at me, kicked at my hand, and the car accelerated away as somebody in another vehicle slammed on his brakes. Stehle’s driver had almost caused a collision.

I vaulted over the stopped car’s hood, grabbed the driver’s door and jerked it open. A woman driver, buckled in. “Police,” I roared.

I reached across, popped the buckle and pulled her out. The car began to roll. I confess, I wasn’t gentle. I dropped her and jumped behind the wheel and slammed the door shut. The sedan with Stehle in it was a half block ahead, accelerating quickly. I floored the gas pedal.

Stehle’s car — a Peugeot, it looked like — took the next left. Of course the light was changing, and I had to slow, but there was just enough room so I poured the coal on and away we went, him still a half block ahead. I had the pedal to the metal, but the three squirrels under the hood could give me no more.

Three more turns and we were accelerating down the boulevard in front of the hotel. The clown ahead went screaming by the two police cars with flashing blue lights parked near the entrance and an ambulance easing up with flashing lights and siren moaning. As I roared by I got a glimpse of a nice little crowd gathered on the sidewalk.

Henri Stehle was in no mood for quiet conversation — that was obvious. The guy driving the Peugeot wasn’t, either.

Soon we were out on the boulevard by the Seine, weaving through traffic and blowing through stoplights. Pedestrians were dodging and jumping every which way. I used my horn freely, but still… We were going to kill someone if this kept on.

I got a glimpse of his license plate — I was that close. An A and an F. Couldn’t get the numbers.

I could hear a police siren, one of those French whee-hoo, whee-ooh jobs. Glanced in the rearview mirror and, you guessed it, he was behind me.

The Peugeot ran a red light and managed to miss a truck pulling out from the left. I wasn’t so lucky. It was the truck fender or the pedestrians streaming across the street on my right. I took the fender. Whump!

I wasn’t buckled in and nearly went through the windshield. My ride turned 180 degrees and slid to a tire-squalling halt. Gray smoke was wafting up around the crumpled hood.

Somehow I managed to get the ignition off. I seemed to be all in one piece, although I had taken a lick on the forehead and something wet was oozing into my left eye. I wiped at it. Red shit. Fuckin’ A, man!

The driver’s door didn’t want to open. It was jammed. I was kicking at it when two cops grabbed hold, and with our combined efforts it swung free. The fuzz leaned in, placed rough hands on me and dragged me out onto the street.

Before I could explain my status as a civil servant of their old ally on the other side of the gray Atlantic, they had cuffs on me and jerked me to my feet, then slammed me against my wrecked ride. One of them helped himself to my wallet while the other felt me all over for a weapon. As if I could have hidden a pistol in that tight, tailored waiter’s outfit.

I looked up the street. The Peugeot had stopped and was sitting up there with the brake lights on. Even as I looked, the right rear door opened and Henri Stehle got out. He had something in his hand. When he began walking back this way, he held it down beside his leg.

Uh-oh.

I may not be the brightest bulb in the box, yet I am not the dimmest. I instantly arrived at the conclusion that ol’ Henri figured I had almost gotten him caught and he’d decided to ensure it didn’t happen again.

And here I was all handcuffed, without even a slingshot to even the odds.

I kneed the officer in front of me and, as he doubled up, put my knee into his face. He went down. The other one I backhanded — not too hard because I was wearing cuffs and couldn’t really get the leverage to whack him good. He staggered. I popped him on the chin, then bent down and pulled his pistol, a nice little automatic, from his holster. There was a lanyard on it. That broke when I gave it a hell of a jerk.

People were shouting and fleeing, giving us some room.

I took two steps to give myself a clear shot at Henri, thumbed off the safety and tried to calm down enough to get a good sight picture. He wasn’t waiting. He opened fire. Two pops, then he turned and ran back toward the Peugeot.

I don’t believe in fair play, giving a sucker an even break — none of that crap. I’d rather shoot someone in the back than the front, because he won’t be shooting at me while I do it. Besides, Henri had already had two free ones. I started whanging away with the cop’s little popper— bang, bang, bang — as Henri scrambled into the back seat of the Peugeot. Once again, the door was still open when the car accelerated away.

I said a couple of nasty Anglo-Saxon words I happen-to know and tossed the cop’s shooter at him. Good thing. The other cop had his pistol out and was bent down a little working on the safety. He couldn’t see too well because of his broken nose.

I held up my hands, still cuffed, so he wouldn’t drill me when he got it all together. It took him about fifteen seconds to figure out I was just standing there, not trying to get away or murder anyone. When he did, he whacked me on the side of the face with his pistol.

None of us were having a good night.

“Your husband died on the way to the hospital, Madame Petrou.” The French detective spoke with all the sincerity of a funeral director, Marisa thought. He was a senior detective, very senior, an officer named Marcel Gaillard. He was so senior that he had two young detectives with him, one of whom took notes in shorthand. The other.. well, he seemed to be there in case the great man needed a glass of water, or tea, or a more comfortable chair.

“The doctors are very sure he was poisoned, but they won’t know what kind, of course, until…” Gaillard sighed delicately.

“Until the autopsy is completed.”

“Yes. You understand, under the circumstances, we—“

She nodded and took a deep breath. “A glass of water, please.”

The junior member of the trio trotted right off. On the other side of the room, two gray-headed men were questioning Isolde Petrou. Marisa thought she recognized one of them from the newspapers, a cabinet minister.

“Now, unfortunately,” said Gaillard, “it is my duty to ask you some very personal questions. I do not mean to offend you, but these are questions the examining magistrate will insist that I ask.”

“I have told you everything I know, everything that happened, from the moment we entered the hotel until I sat down with you. Your man here has written down every word. I can’t imagine that there is anything more to discuss.”

“Unfortunately there is. Permit me, please. How would you describe your relationship with your husband?”

“We were separated, then we decided to live together as husband and wife once again. My affection for Jean was — I had affection for him.”

Marisa paused, then added, “I know of nothing to add to that statement.”

“And his relationship with his mother?”

“Ask her.”

“We shall, we shall, madame, but I ask you now for your impressions.”

“They had a great affection for each other and a mutual respect.”

Marcel Gaillard nodded. “A few more questions, then we will stop. Your late husband’s will will soon be a matter of public record. Perhaps you can tell me how much — in very general terms — you expect to inherit from him.”

“I have no expectations. I will await the reading of the document.” I see.

“I mean no disrespect, monsieur, but there are family trusts that Jean’s father set up. I have no knowledge of these matters. I received a generous allowance.”

“And I ask you again, do you know anyone who, for any reason, might have wished that your husband were dead?”

“No.”

“Very well, madame. Thank you for your patience. I express my condolences.”

“Am I a suspect?” Marisa asked.

“I am but a policeman, madame. I merely gather evidence for the magistrate, who will undoubtedly have information from many sources to weigh. I bid you good day. You may go.”

Marisa stood. She walked over to where her mother-in-law sat. Isolde saw her coming, yet sat listening to the two men before her.

They fell silent as Marisa approached. She was in time to hear her mother-in-law say, “I will instruct the staffs of the various banks to cooperate fully. Harass them and our customers all you wish. Now, if you gentlemen will excuse me, I have had quite enough for one old woman. I need rest.”

The two women were escorted from the hotel. When they were in the limo for the ride to the chateau, Isolde said, “Who was that at the door to the kitchen?”

“I thought I recognized him, but perhaps not.”

“Did you tell them that?”

“No.”

Isolde drew a deep breath and exhaled audibly. “Jean was a good son. He did his best. He was not a brilliant man, nor did he have the head for business his father had, but he tried. God knows he tried.”

Marisa didn’t reply.

“Who was that waiter that made Jean vomit? The detectives questioned me again and again about him. Was I supposed to know him?”

“I recognized him,” Marisa said softly. “He is a CIA officer. His specialty is planting listening devices.”

“The chateau, you think?”

“Possibly. And this car.”

Isolde Petrou turned her face to the window. She had nothing more to say.

Marisa looked at her hands. Flexed them.

She thought about Jean, but they were just thoughts. She didn’t love him, never had, which had made marriage difficult, to say the least. Oh, he was nice enough, but only that. A nice man. She had married him because.. well, because he was a nice man, and at that time in her life, that was what she thought she needed. She had been so lonely…

Growing up as the pretend daughter of Georges and Grisella Lamoureux had been horrific at times. When she was little she didn’t understand why she couldn’t live with her real father, who came to see her occasionally, once a year or so. She had asked him that question, repeatedly, and he had said that it was best that she stayed where she was. Of course, where she was was at a Swiss boarding school. On vacations she visited the Lamoureuxs in France, or wherever Monsieur Lamoureux’s diplomatic career had taken him.

Once, when she was seven or eight, her real father remarked in the way of explanation that his business was dangerous. “That is why you must tell no one, hint to no one, not even your very best friend, that you are not the daughter of the Lamoureuxs. I am just your uncle, come to visit.”

The name he was using then was Alain Thenault. He wore impeccable suits and was always perfectly barbered and smelled of a subtle, no doubt expensive, scent, the kind that was popular among wealthy French businessmen just then. At his request, she called him uncle, in case someone might overhear.

“But what of Mama?” she asked on one visit. She could still remember the moment and the place, spring, in the school’s garden, on a little bench seat as the sun and breeze caressed the early flowers. “Why can’t I live with her?”

“It is not possible,” he said curtly. “Let us not speak of her again.”

So she wondered, on those lonely nights when the lights were out and everyone else at the school was sound asleep, Why could she and her father not speak of Mama? Was she dead? Who was she?

In her imagination she could see her mother, a beautiful woman, French, of course, with a wonderful smile and a gentle touch. Someday she would meet her — she knew it and wanted it to be so — and they would have so much to talk about, and she would love her mother and her mother would love her. On those endless nights long ago that had been her favorite fantasy.

Of course it never happened.

And never would. She knew that now. She didn’t know who her mother was and never would know.

Her mother was probably dead. In fact, one suspected she killed herself when she realized what a monster she had married.

Remembering those days when she was a child, thinking these thoughts, Marisa rode silently through the streets and suburbs of Paris with Isolde Petrou, who was also lost in her own thoughts.

Henri Stehle lived in a walk-up flat in Montmartre. It was four in the morning when he rounded the corner and stood looking at the door to his building. There were no policemen in sight.

Dare he risk it? His clothes and money were in his apartment.

That fool American waiter! Chasing him. Of course he would tell the police that Stehle ran, and the police would want to know why.

Running was so stupid. He had panicked.

Fortunately he had seen his friend Alain sitting there at the curb in his car, waiting for him.

They had had such a good thing going, selling cocaine to rich tourists.

Standing in the dark doorway, Stehle tried to light a cigarette as he thought about the police and the money. He had drunk half a bottle of wine in the past hour, yet still his hands shook. He had to light three matches before he got his cigarette burning satisfactorily.

He wanted the money in the apartment. It was his! He had earned every sou. But what if the police came while he was upstairs? He waited… watching and smoking — and shivering. He had left his coat at the hotel. What a fool he was!

Henri Stehle went over the events of the evening one more time, running through every scene in his mind’s eye. That crazy American!

Mon Dieu, who would have thought something like that might happen? It had been so unexpected, he had reacted without thinking.

Shooting at the American had been foolish. Silencing him was futile — he really knew nothing — but the crazy American had chased him, ruining everything. It was so frustrating!

Even now, the thought of that athletic man behind him, running to catch him, elevated Stehle’s heart rate. He looked up and down the street again.

Think about the money! Forget the American and the police and all of that. Think about the money and the future and all the photographs you are going to take.

He puffed nervously on his cigarette. Well, the truth was that every minute he waited made it more likely the police would catch him upstairs. The sooner the better.

He screwed up his courage, tossed away his weed and walked to the entrance of the building, trying to walk normally. Through the door, up the stairs.

In front of his door he paused. Listened. Not a sound from within.

He used his key and pushed the door open. Closed it behind him. As he reached for the light he saw the man sitting in the chair. Startled, he stood motionless. In the weak light coming through the window from the streetlights he couldn’t see the man’s face.

“Who—?”

His words stopped coming when he saw the pistol. Saw the silencer. In the intermittent light from the streetlights and store signs, he saw the deadly little hole in the snout of the silencer.

He stared, frozen, as the man extended the pistol, pointed it right at him, then, mercifully, everything went black.

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