RENNES-LE-CHATEAU

SATURDAY, JUNE 24

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9:30 AM

MALONE SQUEEZED HIS TALL FRAME INTO THE PEUGEOT. STEPHANIE was already inside the car.

"See anybody?" she asked.

"Our two friends from last night are back. Resilient suckers."

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"No sign of motorcycle girl?"

He'd told Stephanie about his suspicions. "I wouldn't expect that."

"Where are the two amigos?"

"In a crimson Renault at the far end, beyond the water tower. Don't turn your head. Let's not spook 'em."

He adjusted the outside mirror so he could see the Renault. Already tour buses and about a dozen cars filled the sandy car park. The clear weather from yesterday was gone, the sky now smeared with pewter storm clouds. Rain was on the way, and soon. They were headed to Avignon, about ninety miles away, to find Royce Claridon. Malone had already checked the map and decided on the best route to lose any tail.

He cranked the car, and they cruised out of the village. Once beyond the city gate and on the winding path down to ground level, he noticed the Renault staying a discreet distance back.

"How do you plan to lose them?"

He smiled. "The old-fashioned way."

"Always plan ahead, right?"

"Somebody I once worked for taught me that."

They found highway D118 and headed north. The map indicated a distance of twenty miles to A61, the tolled superhighway just south of Carcassonne that led northeast to Avignon. About six miles ahead, at Limoux, the highway forked, one route crossing the Aude River into Limoux, the other continuing north. He decided that would be his opportunity.

Rain started to fall. Light at first, then heavy.

He flipped on the front and rear wipers. The road ahead on both sides was clear of cars. Saturday morning had apparently kept traffic at home.

The Renault, its fog lamps piercing the rain, matched his speed and then some. He watched in his rearview mirror as the Renault passed the car directly behind him, then sped ahead, paralleling the Peugeot in the opposite lane.

The passenger window descended and a gun appeared.

"Hold on," he told Stephanie.

He floored the accelerator and whipped the car tight around a curve. The Renault lost speed and fell in behind.

"Seems there's been a change in plan. Our shadows have turned aggressive. Why don't you stay down on the floorboard."

"I'm a big girl. Just drive."

He slid around another curve and the Renault closed distance. Holding the tires to the highway was tough. The pavement was coated in a thick veil of condensation and becoming wetter by the second. No yellow lines defined anything and the asphalt's edge was partially obscured by puddles that could easily hydroplane the car.

A bullet shattered the rear windshield.

The tempered glass did not explode, but he doubted if it could take another hit. He started zigzagging, guessing where the pavement ended on each side. He spotted a car approaching in the opposite lane and returned to his own.

"Can you fire a gun?" he asked, not taking his eyes off the road.

"Where is it?"

"Under the seat. I took it off the guy last night. There's a full clip. Make 'em count. I need a little space from those guys behind us."

She found the pistol and lowered her window. He saw her reach out, aim toward the rear, and fire five rounds.

The shots had the desired effect. The Renault backed off, but did not abort its pursuit. He fishtailed around another curve, working the brake and accelerator as years ago he'd been trained to do.

Enough of being the fox.

He swerved into the southbound lane and slammed on brakes. Tires grabbed the wet pavement with a screech. The Renault shot past in the northbound lane. He released the brake, downshifted to second, then plunged the accelerator to the mat.

The tires spun, then shot the car forward.

He wound the gearshift through to fifth.

The Renault was now ahead of him. He sent more gas to the engine. Sixty. Sixty-five. Seventy miles an hour. The whole thing was curiously invigorating. He hadn't seen this kind of action in a while.

He swerved into the southbound lane and came parallel to the Renault.

Both cars were now doing seventy-five miles an hour on a relatively straight part of highway. Suddenly they crested a knoll and arched off the pavement, tires slamming hard as rubber re-found the soaked asphalt. His body jerked forward then back, rattling his brain, his shoulder harness holding him in place.

"That was fun," Stephanie said.

To their left and right stretched green fields, the countryside a sea of lavender, asparagus, and grapes. The Renault roared up beside him. He stole another glance to his right. One of the short-hairs was climbing out of the passenger-side window, curling himself up and over the roof for a clear shot.

"Shoot the tires," he told Stephanie.

She was preparing to fire when he saw a transport truck ahead, filling the Renault's northbound lane. He'd driven enough of Europe's two-laned highways to know that, unlike in America where trucks drove with reckless abandon, here they moved at a snail's pace. He'd been hoping to find one closer to Limoux, but opportunities had to be taken when offered. The truck was no more than a couple of hundred yards ahead. They would be on it in a moment, and luckily his lane ahead was clear.

"Wait," he said to her.

He kept his car parallel and did not allow the Renault a way out. The other driver would have to either brake, crash into the truck, or veer right into the open field. He hoped the truck stayed put in the northbound lane, otherwise he'd have no choice but to find a field himself.

The other driver apparently realized his three options and veered off the pavement.

He sped past the truck down the open road. A glance in his mirror confirmed that the Renault was mired in the tawny mud.

He swerved back into the northbound lane, relaxed a bit, but kept his speed, eventually leaving the main highway, as planned, at Limoux.

They arrived in Avignon a little after eleven AM. The rain had stopped fifty miles back and bright sunshine flooded the wooded terrain, the rolling hills green and gold, like a page from an old manuscript. A turreted medieval wall enclosed the city, which had once served as the capital of Christendom for nearly a hundred years. Malone maneuvered the Peugeot through a maze of narrow streets into an underground parking lot.

They climbed stairs to ground level and he immediately noticed Romanesque churches, framed by sunbaked dwellings, the roofs and walls all the tint of dirty sand, the feel clearly Italian. Being the weekend tourists were out by the thousands, the colorful awnings and plane trees in the Place de l'Horloge shading a boisterous lunch crowd.

The address from Lars Nelle's notebook led them down one of the many rues. As they walked Malone thought of the fourteenth century, when popes exchanged Rome's Tiber River for the French Rhone and occupied the huge palace on the hill. Avignon became an asylum for heretics. Jews bought tolerance with a modest tax, criminals lived unscathed, gaming houses and brothels flourished. Policing was lax and roaming after dark could be life threatening. What had Petrarch written? An abode of sorrows, everything breathes lies. He hoped things had changed in six hundred years.

Royce Claridon's address was an antiques shop--books and furniture--the front window filled with Jules Verne volumes from the early part of the twentieth century. Malone was familiar with the colorful editions. The front door was locked, but a note taped to the glass stated that business was being conducted today on the Cours Jean Jaures, part of a monthly book fair.

They learned directions to the market, which sat adjacent to a main boulevard. Rickety metal tables dotted the treed square. Plastic crates held French books as well as a smattering of English titles, mostly movie and television picture volumes. The fair seemed to draw a different type of patron. Lots of trimmed hair, glasses, skirts, ties, and beards--not a Nikon or camcorder in sight.

Buses lumbered past with tourists on the way to the papal palace, the groaning diesels drowning out the beat of a steel band playing across the street. A Coke can clattered across the pavement and startled Malone. He was on edge.

"Something wrong?"

"Too many distractions."

They strolled though the market, his bibliophilic eye studying the wares. The good stuff was all wrapped in plastic. A card on top identified a book's provenance and price, which he noticed was high for the low quality. He learned from one of the vendors the location for Royce Claridon's booth, and they found it on the far side, away from the street. The woman tending the tables was short and stout, with bottle-blond hair tied in a bun. She wore sunglasses and any attractiveness was tempered by a cigarette stuck between her lips. Smoking was not something Malone had ever found appealing.

They examined her books, everything displayed on a tattered home entertainment center, most of the clothbound volumes in ratty condition. He was amazed anyone would buy them.

He introduced himself and Stephanie. The woman didn't offer her name, she just kept smoking.

"We went by your shop," he said in French.

"Closed for the day." The clipped tone made clear that she did not want to be bothered.

"We're not interested in anything there," he made clear.

"Then, by all means, enjoy these wonderful books."

"Business that bad?"

She sucked another drag. "It stinks."

"Why are you here then? Why not out in the country for the day?"

She appraised him with a suspicious eye. "I don't like questions. Especially from Americans who speak bad French."

"I thought mine was fair."

"It's not."

He decided to get to the point. "We're looking for Royce Claridon."

She laughed. "Who isn't?"

"Care to enlighten us on who else is?" This bitch was getting on his nerves.

She did not immediately answer. Instead, her gaze shifted to a couple of people examining her stock. The steel band from across the street struck up another tune. Her potential patrons wandered off.

"Have to watch them all," she muttered. "They will steal anything."

"Tell you what," he said. "I'll buy a whole crate if you'll answer one question."

The proposal seemed to interest her. "What do you want to know?"

"Where is Royce Claridon?"

"I haven't seen him in five years."

"That's not an answer."

"He's gone."

"Where did he go?'

"That's all the answers one crate of books will buy."

They clearly were not going to learn anything from her, and he had no intention of giving her any more money. So he tossed a fifty-euro note onto the table and grabbed his crate of books. "Your answer sucked, but I'll keep my end of the bargain."

He walked over to an open trash bin, turned the container upside down, and dumped the contents inside. Then he tossed the crate back on the table.

"Let's go," he said to Stephanie. They walked off.

"Hey, American."

He stopped and turned back.

The woman rose from her chair. "I liked that."

He waited.

"Lots of creditors are looking for Royce, but he's easy to find. Check out the sanatorium in Villeneuve-les-Avignon." She twirled an extended index finger at her temple. "Loony, that's Royce."

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