Old Bones - Douglas Preston


October 13

NIGHT HAD COME early to the City of Lights, and by 1:00 AM, with the moon obscured by thick clouds, Paris no longer lived up to its name. Even here, down by the river, it was dark and empty: too late on a weeknight for residents, too cold for tourists and the romantically inclined. Except for a pedestrian hurrying past, coat collar pulled up against the chill, and a long glass-sided boat sliding silently along the river—ghostlike and empty, dinner cruise over, headed to port—the man had the waterfront promenade to himself.

Promenade was perhaps too grand a word for the walkway, paved with ancient stones, that ran along the Seine barely above water level. Still, even late at night this section of it offered a remarkable vista: the Île de la Cité directly across the water, with the dark bulk of the Louvre and the towers of Notre Dame—partly obscured by the Pont au Double—reaching toward a threatening sky.

The man was seated on a narrow bench beside some wooden scaffolding erected to accommodate repairs on the ancient bridge. Behind him, a stone wall rose some twenty feet to street level, where vehicles on the Quai de Montebello could occasionally be heard as they passed along the artery south of the Seine. Every quarter mile or so, a worn stone staircase led down from this avenue to the riverfront promenade. Occasional lights, fixed high up along the retaining wall, cast narrow pools of yellow over the wet cobblestones. The light closest to the seated man had been removed due to the construction on the Pont au Double.

A gendarme appeared in the distance, dressed in an oilskin coat, whistling a Joe Dassin tune as he approached. He smiled and nodded at the man, and the man nodded back as he lit a Gauloise and casually watched the policeman continue on beneath the bridge, the echoing notes of “Et si tu n’existais pas” receding.

The man took a deep drag on the cigarette, then held it out and examined the burning tip. His movements were slow and fatigued. He was in his late thirties, dressed in a well-tailored wool suit. Between his stylish Italian shoes sat a fat leather Gladstone bag, scuffed, of the sort that might be used by a busy lawyer or a private Harley Street doctor. A shiny new kick scooter leaned against the bench next to him. Nothing would have differentiated the man from countless other affluent Parisian businessmen save for his features—vague in the present darkness—which had an exotic touch difficult to place: perhaps Asiatic, perhaps Kazakh or Turkish.

Now the low hum of the city was disturbed by the whir of an approaching bicycle. The man looked up as a figure appeared at the top of the nearest staircase. He was dressed in black nylon shorts and a dark cyclist’s jersey and was wearing a backpack with reflective stripes that gleamed in the headlights of a passing car. Pulling his bike up to the railing, he padlocked it, then came down the staircase and approached the man in the suit.

“Ça va?” he said as he sat down on the bench. Despite the chill of the night, his riding outfit was damp with sweat.

The man in the suit shrugged. “Ça ne fait rien,” he replied, taking another drag on the cigarette.

“What’s with the scooter?” the biker continued in French, shrugging off his mud-splattered backpack.

“It’s for my kid.”

“I didn’t know you were married.”

“Who says I am?”

“Serves me right for asking,” the biker said, laughing.

The man in the suit flicked his cigarette into the river. “How did it go?”

“A lot worse than your guy made it sound. I figured it would be some remote, empty park. Putain de merde, it was wedged right between Gare Montparnasse and the Catacombes!”

The man in the suit shrugged again. “You know Paris.”

“Yeah, but it’s not exactly the kind of thing you usually see.”

They stopped talking and gazed out over the river while a couple strolled by arm in arm, paying them no attention. Then the man in the suit spoke again.

“But it was deserted. Right?”

“Yes. I got lucky with the actual site—right up against the Rue Froidevaux wall. Any farther in, and I would have been visible from the apartment building across the street.”

“Was it hard work?”

“Not really, except for having to keep quiet the whole time. And yesterday’s goddamned rain. Look!” He pointed to his running shoes, which were even more soiled than the backpack.

“Quel dommage.”

“Thanks a lot.”

The man in the suit glanced up and