Chapter One


Prologue

Rain fell outside the barn. From the loft I looked out at the barren plateau. This part of France was not beautiful. Just like my mood.

I was in a state of shock.

Minutes ago I had watched a man being murdered. Now I faced death myself if discovered.

I studied the trio beside their motorcycles. One turned his head—I followed the motion. As I returned to the others, I realized one was staring straight at me.

His mouth formed an O of stunned surprise.

He shouted.

Within a micro second I was racing to the ladder. It was like a dream, with everything in slow motion. At the bottom I made for the back door. Outside, a stone wall provided a measure of protection. Crouching low, I scuttled along the wall. The rain was coming down hard. I ran fast, fast, fast. I had no way to protect myself and I would be killed if they caught me.

I had learned the truth about the death of the Princess of Wales.

I heard motorcycles, coming my way. I slipped through an opening in the wall, dashed across a field and dropped down into a stream. Splashing through the shallows, I made my way to the shelter of the bridge that spanned the water.

I huddled against the wall. My breath came in short gasps. Fear rendered me powerless to move. I stared at the water flowing past. It was impossible to believe I was in such danger. Closing my eyes, I had just one thought:

How did I get here?

Chapter 1 – January 1997

I was an innocent when I arrived in Paris at the age of thirty-three. Man, I had so much to learn! The people I met, the things that happened, made me a different person. A better person, I think.

I experienced laughter and tragedies, the good and bad in life. I came to know many people, and I fell in love in a most wonderful way. I lived through so much in the ultimate city of romance, and it all began in January 1997.

A Paris taxi took me through streets out of history. The iron balconies, old buildings and lamp standards put me in mind of watching Murders in the Rue Morgue.

I’d been in Paris for only a few days. I was still getting used to the currency. The cabbie smiled cheerfully at the tip I placed in his hand. “Bonne chance, monsieur,” he said, as I stepped into the cold. “Be on your guard. This area has a reputation, and it is not favorable.”

Light snow dusted down. I looked up at a six-storey office building that dated back a century or more. Rust from ancient metal fixtures stained walls criss-crossed by bare ivy branches. The windows were small and narrow. It was the kind of place that makes you feel you’re being watched even though you can’t see any sign of life.

I’d come to this place to meet a man named H.B. Baxter. I’d been given an introduction by a friend who played basketball with me at the Y in Seattle. “Baxter’s an investigative reporter from London,” he explained, “now retired to Paris and working on a novel. He’s a character! Loves to talk.”

We’d arranged to meet at the office of the Canadian Press news agency. Apparently a friend of Baxter’s ran the one-person bureau, which was located on the top floor. Inside the building I found a long hallway faintly lit by dim bulbs in ceiling fixtures. Hurrying through the gloom I stepped into an elevator that could have been on display in the Smithsonian. I have never seen anything so old still functioning.

I pushed the button for the sixth floor. My desire to find a restroom was intense and I silently cursed the ancient machinery as the elevator rose up ever so slowly, clunking and groaning. At last the door opened and I stepped into another dark hallway. I walked along it looking for the Canadian Press news agency. But I couldn’t seem to find the place. Behind me, I heard the elevator noisily descending.

On a door a small brass plaque displayed the words ABC Export Import. If this was an office, I reasoned, there’d be a restroom inside — they’d HAVE to let me use it. I wouldn’t take no for an answer!

Opening the door I stepped inside. Before me was a receptionist’s desk without a receptionist. A short hallway led past several offices. Through their open doors I could see desks and chairs, computers and books, travel posters and the like.

I heard voices. In a boardroom at the distant end of a hallway several people were involved in a meeting. Then my prayers were answered because I spotted the door I was seeking. I hurried to it, moving very quickly.

Blessed relief! What a miracle I’d found the place, and just in time.

Finally, feeling so much better, I washed my hands at a small sink. Then I opened the door. Luckily, it didn’t make a sound. Something was happening at the receptionist’s desk, and I had the feeling I shouldn’t intrude. From my vantage point I could see a middle-aged fellow counting out money to a young man wearing a leather jacket. The younger man’s head was shaved, his face was scarred. About five foot ten, I’d say, with the appearance of a pit bull. His black jacket was open, revealing a muscular body in a t-shirt. Inside the jacket I glimpsed the butt of a gun in a shoulder holster.

The men spoke to each other in French — I couldn’t understand what was being said. The older one looked about 50 years of age. He was well dressed in a pricey gray suit with a black turtleneck sweater. Really beautiful shoes, probably from Italy. I admired this man’s taste in clothes, but not his demeanor. Call it my sixth sense, but there was something unsavory about him. Granted he was handsome, tall and well proportioned with striking dark eyes, tan skin and a good head of gray hair streaked with silver, and granted he had an air of authority, but that didn’t change how I felt. I was glad the men couldn’t see me.

A third person joined them. “Meta,” he said to the older man, “vous etes necessaire pour la reunion.”

Meta turned to the younger man. “Venez avec moi, Ivan.”

The three men left the room together. I counted very slowly to ten before making my way to the outside door.

* * *

Back in the hallway, I finally discovered the Canadian Press. A stained, handwritten note on the door said: Knock then enter.

I opened the door. Two men occupied a small, cluttered space jammed with books and magazines. The floor was stacked with old newspapers, giving the room a musty odor. A cigarette smoldered in an ashtray on a battered desk messy with scattered papers and take-out coffee cups. On top of a nearby filing cabinet, a small television set was tuned to the news. The picture was on but the sound was off.

A vintage computer occupied a portion of the desk. The guy at the keyboard was 55, maybe 60. Pale, close-cropped hair covered the top of his egg shaped head. A salt-and-pepper goatee surrounded a small, petulant mouth; his tiny eyes seemed resentful as he registered my presence. He took a deep drag from the cigarette and then exhaled a cloud of carcinogens toward the ceiling.

The second man was older, 70 or so. He had a ready smile. Standing up from a filthy, burn-scarred armchair he advanced with a firm handshake for me.

“Horatio Baxter is my name. It’s a pleasure to meet you.”

“I’m Daniel Plain,” I replied. “I can assure you, Mr. Baxter, the feeling is mutual.”

“Actually, Daniel, I prefer being called just plain Baxter.”

Baxter was a study in white with his snowy hair and moustache and thick white eyebrows. His blue eyes twinkled – he was a likeable person. He turned to the man at the computer. “This is Trevor O’Connor. He’s bureau chief here.”

I smiled. “And also chief cook and bottle washer, I reckon, judging by the size of this place. No one else could fit in!” This was said with a laugh but the joke didn’t register with O’Connor. Scowling, he ignored my outstretched hand. Instead he stubbed out his cigarette in a half-eaten pizza while muttering humph to himself.

“So, Trevor,” I said, hoping he’d warm up, “what exactly is your job?”

“I watch the European media for Canadian references. Anything interesting I rewrite and then wire it back home for use by newspapers and broadcasters. I also do a French version for our subscribers in Quebec.”

I glanced at the door. “So you’d be the guy to ask about that outfit down the hall?”

“ABC Export Import?” O’Connor shrugged. “The office was empty for a long time. About three weeks ago, they hung out their shingle.”

“What are the people like?”

“Ordinary. Except for one guy, he’s kind of a low life thug. I rode in the elevator with him. It wasn’t a pleasant experience. He kept staring at me. It was like being watched by a snake. Very creepy.” O’Connor shook his head. “Anyway, Plain, why do you care?”

“I’m just naturally curious. I like getting to the bottom of things. I think I saw the guy you refer to. He had a gun. I’m wondering about his story.”

A telephone on the desk produced a shrill ring. O’Connor picked it up, listened for a moment, then snapped a curt reply in French before banging down the receiver. He drank from a stained coffee cup, wrinkling his nose at the taste, then lit up another cigarette. Leaning back in his creaky swivel chair, he put his feet on the desk and inhaled deeply. Eyes on the ceiling, the portly journalist blew a perfect smoke ring. I watched its slow ascent.

“Daniel’s from Seattle,” Baxter said.

O’Connor stared at me. “Are you on holiday?”

“No, I’ve come to stay.” I managed a smile, feeling suddenly shy. “Actually, I’m here to live my dream. I want to try to write. I’m here to learn everything I can.”

“A writer, eh? Who do you like to read?”

“Well, quite a few authors. Ernest Hemingway in particular, but of course there are others. Michael Connelly and Stuart Buchan would be a couple of examples.”

“Stuart Buchan is a favorite of mine,” Baxter said. “I really enjoyed Fleeced. Terrific characterization.”

“Flying over from Seattle I read Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast. All about his life as a young man in Paris. It sure put me in the mood for being here.”

“Hemingway lived a charmed life,” O’Connor said. “Beautiful women, lots of money. I don’t think his writing was all that good.”

“People called him Papa,” Baxter said. “He was virile to the end. Do you know, Daniel, he survived two plane crashes. One right after the other.”

O’Connor shook his head. “Everyone’s heard that,” he grumbled.

“Hemingway was quite the raconteur,” Baxter continued. “These days he’d have been a favorite on late-night talk shows. He didn’t just write stories, he lived them.”

“That’s something I’d like to do.” I sighed, thinking I hadn’t experienced many adventures in life. “You know, I’d love to see some of the Paris that Hemingway wrote about. Like, he described this guy selling goat’s milk. People lowered down their baskets from upper windows to collect the milk. But I guess that doesn’t happen now?”

O’Connor snorted.

“Well,” I said, “you see . . .”

The journalist interrupted me with a wave of his hand. “You might be interested to learn, Plain, that I’ve met a lot of famous writers over the years. Intellectuals seem to have an affinity for me, maybe it’s because I’m a good listener. That skill probably harkens back to my childhood. I was a member of a big family. My father was a county reeve and my uncle on my mother’s side . . .”

About here, I zoned out on O’Connor. Instead I speculated about the stacks of old newspapers, wondering if they served a useful purpose or were intended to impress visitors in some way. How impress them? Well, perhaps by demonstrating the journalist as widely read. But the point was, I thought, these musty newspapers needn’t be here polluting the air. In the age of the computer this guy should be . . .

“Daniel!”

I realized Baxter was speaking my name. I shook my head, startled. “What?”

“Trevor asked you a question.”

I looked at O’Connor. “Sorry. I guess I was somewhere else.”

The journalist snorted disapprovingly. “I call that rude behavior.”

“Sorry,” I repeated.

Humph he said, lighting up another stinker.

“What was your question?” I asked.

“Forget about it,” he muttered.

I glanced at the nameplate on his desk: T.P.W. O’Connor. Too Peevish for Words, I thought. Smiling, I looked around the office. On the mute television I saw a report on the Princess of Wales. Footage was shown of Princess Di’s visit to Angola as part of her ongoing campaign against landmines. We saw her comforting a woman in a graveyard. The woman was sobbing against Diana. I figured she was a mother whose child had been killed by a mine. I felt sad for her.

“I saw Diana and Charles in person,” Baxter said, “at a village fete in Cornwall. One glimpse of that lovely woman and I became a fan forever.”

“When was that?” I asked.

“It was shortly after they were married. Diana is really quite tall, but carries herself so well. I thought she resembled a rather exotic long-stemmed flower. She wore such a beautiful dress. I remember Prince Charles wistfully watching the crowds adoring his wife.”

“What I like about Diana,” I commented, “is her compassion. I saw her on the news recently. She was in Africa, cradling in her arms a child dying from AIDS. Who else in the Royal Family would do something like that?”

O’Connor snorted. “What a load of crap.”

I stared at him. “I beg your pardon?”

“Everything about Diana is crap,” the journalist declared. “She loves publicity, plain and simple. The Princess is totally neurotic. Everything she does is born from self-love.”

To me, this guy qualified for a Mr. Peevish t-shirt. “Well,” I responded, “at least she’s doing something with her fame. Making a difference.”

“Cuddling dying kids? Visiting freaks at AIDS clinics? That’s making a difference?” Peevish waved his hand in the air. “No, Diana does it only for publicity. She’s addicted to fame. In London she regularly leaks information to her favorite reporters, and lets photographers know her plans. As a matter of fact . . .”

Baxter cut him off. “I can’t agree with you, old boy,” he said quietly. “I must say I admire that woman’s battle against the arms industry. Every time a landmine blows off a child’s foot, someone makes a dollar. That is absolutely reprehensible.”

O’Connor shrugged, saying nothing.

Baxter leaned forward. “The Princess puts herself in danger. It shows the truth of her passion.”

Peevish opened his mouth in a crow of laughter. “Puts herself in danger? You gotta be kidding, Baxter. Sure Diana goes to Angola and places like that, but she’d never be blown up by a landmine. Those visits are photo-ops, nothing more. Every moment is carefully controlled.”

“That may be true,” replied Baxter, “but look how the Princess is using her fame to point a spotlight at the landmine industry. That makes her a loose cannon to the establishment. It takes enormous courage for the Princess to stand eyeball to eyeball with the armaments industry. Diana versus Goliath. I greatly admire that young woman.”

“On the contrary,” said Peevish, “she’s a fool for taking on a powerful industry. Let’s face it, we need to manufacture guns and ammunition. The only way to resolve conflict is through force of arms.”

Baxter turned to me. “What’s your opinion, Daniel?”

“Well, I guess I haven’t given it much thought. But I do remember this fellow I worked with at Microsoft. We were standing at the water cooler discussing the Princess and her opposition to landmines. He got very hot under the collar about her campaign.”

“Why was that?”

“It turned out he owns shares in a company manufacturing machine guns. I guess he was afraid that Diana’s efforts for peace could threaten his bottom line.”

* * *

The three of us talked for a while but I didn’t enjoy the experience. O’Connor was tiring to be around. The visit ended when the journalist abruptly turned his back on us, hunched over his keyboard and began to work. Baxter winked at me and then put on a threadbare overcoat and a homburg hat that had seen better days. Outside in the hallway, waiting for the elevator, we agreed to find a bar for a chat over a glass of Glenlivet.

“You know,” I said, “your friend O’Connor reminds me of a neighbor back home in Seattle. But listen, I’m sorry. Did I offend him in some way?”

“Not at all,” Baxter responded. “It’s nothing personal. I must apologize for Trevor. He’s having a bad day. You know, he’s one of my oldest acquaintances. Trevor doesn’t have many friends and that’s probably because he’s never found love. Way back when, he was left standing at the altar. Believe it or not, his bride ran away with the best man. It left him embittered. Eventually he did get married, but it hasn’t been a successful relationship. The wife still blames him for things that happened twenty years ago.”

“That’s kind of sad.”

“What’s more, Trevor has an allergy to wheat products. They have a negative effect on his mood.”

“But,” I protested, “judging from what I saw on his desk, O’Connor just ate a pizza. That can’t be good for him.”

“You’re right, and I’ve made that point. But he keeps on doing it. When Trevor eats the wrong food he gets bad tempered and mean. But he’s not always like that. He can be kind and generous. Trevor was once a curious person, but with age he has changed. It’s sad, but one can’t let down an old friend.”

“You know, Baxter, it seems you are a calm person, very tolerant of others. I wish I had your wisdom.”

“It comes with experience,” he replied with a smile. “You know, Trevor used to be quite an adventurous chap. We met in the high Arctic investigating the same story. He loves discussing political conspiracies, and I’m happy to join in. We’re good at digging up information on the world’s power structures.”

I heard the banging and thudding of the clunky old elevator rising slowly toward us. Just as it arrived at the sixth floor we were joined by the human pit bull I remembered from the office of ABC Export Import. I believed his name was Ivan.

The elevator cage was small for three people. During our noisy descent I became aware that Ivan was staring at me. Turning, I looked straight into his eyes. They were reptilian, just like O’Connor had said. The pupils were small and black. I was close enough to see tiny red veins. A cokehead, I thought.

Ivan blinked, then looked away.

Outside the building we watched him mount a powerful BMW motorcycle. As he disappeared into the darkness Baxter exclaimed, “My God, Daniel! Are you always so brash?”

Puzzled, I frowned. “Meaning?”

“That was the man with the gun. Correct?”

I nodded.

“The way you reacted, I feared trouble.”

“He was staring at me. I didn’t like it.”

“But Daniel my friend, you could have been murdered.”

“I doubt that,” I said, touched by his concern but unable to see I’d done anything wrong. Shaking his head, Baxter smiled. “You may come to realize, Daniel, that discretion is the better side of valor. But I must say, after that incident I’m glad we’re on our way to meet a glass of very good scotch.”

Buy your copy of Paris 97 now

Paris 97 Copyright by Eric Wilson Enterprises, Inc.

No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without the prior written permission of the publisher, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in reviews. For information please contact:info@paris97.com