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Night Watch 1st Chapter

NIGHT WATCH: CHAPTER ONE

Bones. Human bones the length of a man’s thigh. I stopped short at
the sight of more than a dozen of them stacked like a cord of firewood
just steps in front of me.
     I paused to catch my breath before
heaving my shoulder against the thick wooden door for the third time.
The sturdy threshold, reinforced with rust-covered strips of wrought iron,
had withheld assaults by barbarian invaders throughout centuries, so I didn’t
have much hope that it would yield to my slender frame.
     The cobblestone alleyway that led back up a
steep incline to the center of town was dark, except for a sliver of light
that sliced through it like a laser from the two o’clock angle of the waning
crescent moon.
     “It’s some kind of sick joke, Gaspard.” I
raised my voice as I addressed the perpetually drooling basset hound
that was probably sleeping soundly just inside. There was no one else
around to hear me, and I was trying to stay calm though staring at this
cache of skeletal remains. “There were no bones here when I left the house
for dinner.”
     I was dead-ended outside the entrance to the
grounds of the ancient mill— a medieval moulin— that Luc Rouget had converted
into his home on a hillside in Mougins, a perched village in France
that overlooked the glittering Cöte D’Azur and the city of Cannes.
     I glanced down again, trying to calculate how many
dead men it had taken to create this ghastly tableau. The bones looked yellowed
with age, but maybe that was a trick of the night sky. I picked
up my head to return to the business of wrestling with the old iron
door handle, which I had never before known Luc to lock.
     I could hear voices in the distance, coming from
below the house, where the dense Valmasque Forest surrounded the village.
Deep voices of several men carried up over the stillness of the hillside,
punctuated by the shrill laughter of a woman.
     It was an early spring night, cool and dry, but I
had already worked up a sweat as I struggled against the mammoth door. I
turned to make my way back up the slope to find Luc and our friends,
but my left heel caught in the uneven spacing between stones. I nervously
braced myself against the wall to disengage it, and as I kicked
loose, my foot grazed the top of the mound behind me.
     Several of the bones smacked against the ground,
rolling or sliding out of sight in the darkness past the entryway. I leaned down
to try to catch a couple but missed entirely. Too much good wine
over too many hours had affected my judgment— like
my decision to return home alone— and my balance.
     The voices seemed to be getting closer to me, as
though the interlopers had breached the wall at the bottom of Luc’s property
and were approaching his house. They were no longer loud and
laughing, but whispering among themselves.
     The pile of bones that had looked so sinister to
me moments earlier was scattered across the cobblestones. My own doing, of
course, but now it seemed as haphazard and benign an accumulation
of debris as though Gaspard had dragged them home from the
woods after an evening of foraging unsuccessfully for live prey.
     More than a decade as a prosecutor in the
Manhattan District Attorney’s Office had provided enough fuel to stoke my imagination,
even in the midst of a vacation, when presented with the slightest opportunity.
But I shivered reflexively as I looked down. There could be no innocent explanation
for the sudden deposit of a collection of human bones.
     I unstrapped my sandals and stepped out of them.
I was jumpy and slightly intoxicated. It was only a short walk from the cul-de-
sac in which I found myself trapped to the center of town, the public
square where Luc’s restaurant anchored this quaint village
known for its culinary landmarks.
     I hugged the wall of the old mill as I retraced the
route up the slope, the cool stones beneath my feet radiating chills as though I
had dipped them in cold water.
     Suddenly, at the top of the alley, I saw the figure of
a large man, filling the opening toward which I was headed. He lifted his arm
and shined a flashlight in my direction, blinding me momentarily. I
twisted my head away, and when I looked up again, shielding my eyes, he was gone.
     Why hadn’t I asked him for help? The liquor had
slowed my reflexes and clouded my thought process. I should have called out to
him, but I feared he might be lurking near Luc’s home because he
had something to do with the skeletal remains that had been planted
there just a short time ago.
     Better to be in the public square than cornered where
I was, so I forced myself to move more quickly. Twenty or thirty paces and I
emerged directly onto the narrow main street of the old village.
     At least it was lighted by the dim glow of antique street lamps, even though there wasn’t a person in sight. Off to the left was a row of small shops, galleries, and restaurants that led to the car park and the road out of town. I turned to my right, where the bakery and apartments above it were all shuttered tight for the night.
     The main street snaked in a circular path, winding and
climbing through the tiny village to its highest point, where la Porte
Sarrazine, the great fortification built in the twelfth century to protect
the Mouginois monks of Saint Honorat from attacks, still stood
watch over the countryside below.
     I had separated from our group there on the ramparts
above the village, and now I was too anxious and agitated to work my way back
up to find them. I hadn’t taken a purse or cell phone with me. I
hadn’t anticipated need for either.
     But the restaurant Luc owned was in the center of the
village, within my sight. It was not that long after the normal closing time,
and I hoped one of the staff would still be cleaning up and could get
a message to Luc to come home immediately.
     I walked in the dead center of the street, oblivious
to the pebbles that poked me underfoot. I kept reminding myself that I was in
one of the safest places imaginable, a village that looked like a movie
set for a caper with Grace Kelly and Cary Grant.
     I had come to know Mougins as a small piece of paradise,
tucked into the foothills of the Alps in the southeastern corner of France,
to which people from all over the world traveled, simply in order to
dine elegantly and well. No third world gratings covered the windows
of the pricey shops, rarely did anyone lock doors of villas decorated
with works by old masters and modern artists, and the tiny
residential population bragged that this town had no reason to keep
statistics about violent crime. There simply wasn’t any.
     I ran toward the patio of the restaurant and ducked
beneath the trellis that bordered the outdoor tables fronting the town square.
Something on the ground in my way stopped me cold, and I bent
over to see what was there.
     Skulls. Obviously human. Three large human skulls
stacked to form a pyramid at the entrance to the only three-star
restaurant in the village of Mougins.

NIGHT WATCH: CHAPTER TWO

“I don’t know if you’ve ever met my friend Alexandra Cooper,” Luc
said to the young policeman who appeared at the house shortly after
eight o’clock in the morning. “Alex, this is Claude Chenier.”
     “Enchanté, madame,” the officer said, nodding at
me though refusing to crack a smile. His expression was as stiff as the pleats in
the pants of his light gray uniform. “No, we’ve never been introduced,
but I’ve seen you around the village. Good to meet you.”
     “My pleasure.” We were on the terrace outside the
house on a sparkling late April morning. “We’re just having our first coffee,
Claude. Would you like some?”
“Yes, thank you, if you don’t mind.”
     I stood up to go back into the kitchen to pour
another cup. Beyond the grounds of Luc’s property, over the deep green of the dense
growth of trees in the Valmasque, I could see the water of the Bay of
Cannes that had given its colorful name to this stretch of the Mediterranean
coast.
     “I hope we didn’t create too much extra work for
you last evening.” Luc was speaking English for my sake. He was bilingual, born
in France and educated in England, before returning to take over the
empire started by his father, the legendary restaurateur Andre
Rouget. Although my affair with him had done less for my language
skills than for my spirit, my comprehension was far better than my
ability to converse about anything serious.
     “Pas de tout. No trouble at all, Monsieur Rouget.”
     I stirred the sugar until it dissolved and then I
carried the cup outside, setting it down on the table. “I have to apologize for
creating such a commotion in the middle of the night, Claude. Won’t
you sit down?”
     He shook his head. “I’m not sure what you mean,
madame? Commotion?”
     “Agitation, Claude. But I think Alex is mistaken.
Nothing you need to be concerned with.”
     “Aren’t we talking about the bones I found last night? The human skulls?”
     “No, darling,” Luc said, reaching across the table for my hand.
“I’m sure Claude doesn’t even know about them yet. Give me a minute with him, will you?”
     “I thought you went directly to the gendarmerie after you
brought me home?”
     I had raced up the hill to find Luc as the last of the revelers at our party were finishing their champagne.
Together we walked back to his restaurant— Le Relais a Mougins— and went inside,
careful not to disturb the skulls, to retrieve the key to his property
that he kept in the office above the dining room. Luc assured me
that he hadn’t locked the door and that I probably was just skittish
alone in the dark alleyway, fooled by the work of village pranksters.
     When we got to the house, he was as startled as I
that he couldn’t even insert the key. The lock had been jammed, and as he patiently
whittled away at it with his pocketknife, a piece of bone— the
size of a small finger— splintered and spilled out of the opening.
     Luc settled me inside and inspected the grounds to be
sure that no intruders had made it over the garden wall. I finally fell asleep an
hour later, certain that Luc was going to the police station to report
the incident and to ask the officer on duty to photograph and collect
the bones.
     “At three in the morning? Is that what you really thought?”
Luc asked, winking at me as he got up from the table. “Like this is CSI:
Mougins?
     Claude Chenier was still stone-faced. I was sitting
with my back against the stucco bench of the sunny terrace, looking up at him.
He was about my height— five-ten—and almost as slim as Luc.
     “What bones are you speaking of, madame?”
     “My wallet’s just inside the door, Claude.” Luc pointed
to the kitchen counter not fifteen feet away and headed to it.
     “I didn’t actually come just now for the money.”
     “Nonsense. Your guys did a great job for us. No party
crashers, no media, no out-of-control guests,” Luc said, taking a handful of
bills from his alligator wallet. “Don’t look so startled, Alex. It’s not
a bribe. Claude was off-duty last evening and he supplied the private
security team for our party.”
     Claude did a quick count of the money. “Merci, Monsieur Rouget. It’s very generous of you. My men will appreciate it.”
     Luc put an arm around the young man’s shoulder, as
though to steer him past the swimming pool to the heavy old door that had
offered me so much resistance earlier this morning. “They earned
it. We had a wonderful time.”
     I could tell Luc was embarrassed that he’d misled
me into thinking he had made a police report already. Of course there was no
need to awaken everyone in the village for what he’d almost convinced
me by daybreak was a practical joke. And though the joke
had been a distasteful one, I tried to switch off the “on-duty”
part of my brain that was always thinking like a prosecutor.
     “You must come by some evening with your girlfriend
for dinner, Claude, eh? To Le Relais, for the new spring menu.”
     I smiled as the officer nodded in agreement. I knew
that my favorite NYPD detectives, Mike Chapman and Mercer Wallace,
would envy a police department in which there were no rules
against taking meals at pricey restaurants ‘on the arm.’
     Mike, who worked Homicide, and Mercer, in the
Special Victims Unit— one of the few African American detectives to make
first grade— had become my most trusted friends in the twelve
years I had worked as a prosecutor.
     “Very well, then. We’ll set a date.” Luc’s chiseled
features weren’t classically handsome, but his smile was warm and slightly
crooked, in a sexy way, and always drew a grin in return from me.
     Claude held his ground despite the fact that Luc
was trying to usher him out. We hadn’t gotten much sleep and were planning a
lazy day alone together. Claude pocketed the wad of cash and turned
back to question me.
     “May I ask again, madame, what bones are you talking about?”
     Luc rolled his eyes and shrugged his shoulders, but I answered anyway. “Let me show you, Claude,” I said, putting down my coffee
cup as I stood to walk out to the alley.
     “Alex, they’re not there any longer.”
     “What do you mean? If you didn’t alert the police, then what did you do?”
     “I removed them,” Luc said. The sun reflected off the metal of his wire-rimmed glasses, so that I couldn’t see his expression, see
whether or not he was joking.
     “You what?”
     “I picked them up and carried them back to the restaurant for safekeeping.”
     “With your bare hands?” I sounded as exasperated as I was exhausted. “Did you even think it might be worthwhile having the police examine them
for fingerprints?”
     Claude was tugging on his narrow black uniform tie as he listened to us bicker,
never taking his eyes off my face.
     “C’est fou. Don’t be ridiculous, Alex.”
     “How about the skulls? You moved those, too?”
     Claude looked at Luc. “Cranes?
     “Oui. Trois cranes. Very old ones, Claude. I have them in my office.”
Luc turned his back to me. “You must understand about Alex,
Claude. Elle est une procureur de la ville de New York.
     “C’est vrai, madame?
     “Yes, it’s true. I’m a prosecutor.”
     “Alex is in charge of sex crimes in Manhattan. Touts les crimes sexuels,” Luc said, trying to impress the stolid young cop, which
didn’t seem likely to happen. Then he patted Claude’s shoulder. “It
explains why she always sees something sinister when there really
isn’t cause for concern.”
     I playfully put my hands against Luc’s back and pushed him
toward the edge of the pool. “If I riffed about the secret sauce for
your escargots half as dismissively as you just nailed my career,
you’d probably carve me up and serve me for dinner.”
     “With that very sauce, mon amour. Not only would it be tasty, but all the evidence would be devoured.”
     “How Hitchcockian,” I said, turning my back.
     “Are you ready for a swim to cool off that temper a bit?” He spun me around and lifted me from the ground, dangling me over the
water, while he addressed Claude Chenier. “And you, my friend, the
bones she’s talking about are older than this village, but I’ll cart
them over to headquarters as soon as you like. Or do you want to
come with me now?”
     Luc put me down as Claude answered him.
     “I was trying to get you alone, Monsieur Rouget, to explain to you the reason I came here this morning. But since Madame Cooper
is a professional, I’ll tell both of you.”
     “A reason you’re here, beside the money?”
     “Oui, monsieur, I was sent by my captain,” the young officer said, hesitating before he looked Luc in the eye. “There was a body
found just a few hours ago.”
     “Whose body?” Luc was all business now, his blue-gray
eyes as icy as steel, his hands planted firmly on his hips.
     “A young woman. We don’t know who she is. I was sent here to ask for your help with an identification.”
     “Why my help?” Luc’s pale face had reddened.
     “Because we think she was on her way to your celebration last night. The captain believes she might have been one of your guests.”
     “Of course we’ll do whatever you need,” I said, thinking of the hairpin turns on the narrow roads that led from the autoroute to
this hilltop. “On her way to our dinner party, Claude? Was it an
accident, then? A car crash?”
     “Perhaps an accident, madame, but it didn’t involve a car. They were taking her body out of the pond when I was dispatched to
come here. It’s either an accident, Ms. Cooper, or the young lady was murdered.”