Excerpt

I left the La Residence and walked along the Quai des Belges, past the ferry boats that carried the tourists out to the Château d’If and the Île de Porquerolles. There was a demonstration going on, a protest against an incinerator plant and the intersection with La Canebière, Marseille’s main drag, was jam-packed with protestors and plainclothes cops. I skirted the crowd and went along the Quai du Port, moving past the cafés, now filled with locals and tourists having an early evening drink. I turned at the Hotel de Ville and walked up the hill toward the Place David. A maroon Mercedes sped by me and reached the Place ahead of me and stopped. I slowed my walk and when I passed the Mercedes, I threw a sidelong glance at the driver, catching a large bulk and sunglasses. Could be RONDO, I thought.

As per Hank’s plan, we had our cellphones turned on, with Hank connected to my number. I slid my hand into my pocket when I passed the church.

Two taps. The warning signal. I heard a tap back, Hank was ghosting me, hovering somewhere in the background as my security and he was signaling that he had picked up my watcher. I kept wandering the narrow streets, looking like a lost tourist, gradually bringing myself closer to Blondie’s hideout. When I reached the Santoun shop I stopped, pretending to look in the store window. My four wooden card players were still there, at the table drinking pastis and looking at their cards.

One, in a black turtle neck sweater and white sailor’s cap, seemed to be rearing back in his seat, laughing at my predicament.

I looked down the street towards Blondie’s hideaway. A black Peugeot sedan pulled up at the far corner. A man and a woman got out and the man moved slowly toward me, keeping to the middle of the narrow cobblestone street.

They were putting me in a bind. Whichever side I moved to, he could cut me off. And if I barreled past him, AGNES was waiting for me and I was sure she was armed. They probably had orders to take me alive so that I could be interrogated, but if they had to kill me, they would.

I looked behind me. The maroon Mercedes was blocking the street. The driver was out, lumbering my way; young, with dark eyes much too small for his large shaven head. Below the bowling ball skull he was massive; shoulders, neck, chest and arms all molded into a solid muscle machine. RONDO moved like an up and coming pro wrestler; I wondered who his steroid supplier was. If his size wasn’t enough to buffalo me, RONDO pulled back the side of his leather jacket, letting me see the butt of an automatic sticking up from under his belt.

He spoke to me in fluid French. I tried to think of something Hank had taught me to fire back at him, but I came up blank and answered him in English.

“Excuse me, could I take your picture next to the Santoun shop? It would make a wonderful souvenir of my trip to Marseille.”

RONDO had his hand on his gun now, letting me know this conversation was basically going to be one-sided.

I smiled at him. “Yeah, good, props will make the picture even better,” I said. “Maybe your friends can get in too? A group shot.” I gestured at AGNES and CALVI.

The gun came out of RONDO’s waistband and I let him shove me up against the wall.

“Put AGNES in the middle; it’ll make a better photo,” I said. I was going to make some more suggestions but a fist slammed into my kidney, causing my head to snap back and my legs buckle. I was on my way down when another punch, this time to the back of the neck, drove me forward, into the wall.

I could see the laughing card player in the window just before a soupy blackness enveloped me.

Blondie’s hideout was on the second floor. I dimly remembered them dragging me up one flight of stairs from the street. When I regained some of my senses, I was slumped on a couch, facing the windows to the street. I knew it was the street because I caught a glimpse of the corner of the sign for the Santoun shop through the shutter just before RONDO yanked me to my feet and slapped my face.

He got my attention. I looked around the room. It was a sell-out crowd. Besides RONDO, CALVI and AGNES, Blondie was there. And a mystery guest of honor. A tall slender man, middle-aged with close-cropped hair, graying at the temples. He came over to me and cupped my chin and peered into my eyes. I recognized his face from the DST collection.

THIERRY.

“Mr. Doherty, you are a royal pain in the arse.” He spoke in English; a trace of British accent, the kind I figured Continentals picked while visiting the UK.

“I try to be,” I said.

RONDO’s fist slammed into my chest, sending me sprawling back on the couch. I let my hand fall to my side. Nothing there. Of course not, Doherty. Didn’t you think they’d frisk you?

RONDO raised his fist as to hit me again but THIERRY held his hand up. “Not yet,” he said. Turning back to me, “You see, Monsieur Doherty, your sense of humor doesn’t go over big with this audience.”

I tried to sit up but the pain in my side kept me doubled over.

“Does this mean they won’t stick around for my second act?”