Brief Candle

by Robert Arion

13. Havoc By Accident

Anton was parked outside Trevolin's apartment building when the police car returned Trevolin and Fernand after their trip to the mortuary. Anton waited until the police car had turned the corner and was out of sight before joining the two men on the pavement.
   "Trouble?" he said cautiously to Trevolin.
   "His ex-wife has just copped it at an aquarium," Fernand said. "We've just been to identify the body. And Georges has had to make a statement giving an account of his movements. It's all right, he's in a state of shock but he's not grief-stricken. I'll see you later, Georges, okay?"
   "Right, see you," said Trevolin.
   Anton followed Trevolin through the front door and up the stairs. He switched the radio on and tuned it to a rock music channel before he said another word. "There was something on the TV about a woman being killed in an aquarium somewhere north of here."
   "One of the tanks burst, letting out millions of litres of water; and fish, and sand and God knows what else. Félice was standing right next to it when it happened."
   "You're kidding!"
   "It's almost comical. Except the police are sniffing around all over the place. I heard someone say there's no way the tank could have split open by accident. The specifications of all the materials and so on. You know, a very big safety margin."
   "So?"
   "So if it was deliberate, they're looking for a murderer. And who's a better suspect than the ex-husband?"
   "Have you got an alibi for...."
   "Val was here, yes. I told them that."
   "What, last night?"
   "All last night and this morning."
   "And did you...?"
   "Yes, I gave her your Super-Mickey Finn."
   "And?"
   "She's not a cop. Well, not a proper one."
   "What the hell does that mean?"
   "She's a private investigator. You know what Marie does?"
   "Works for a bloke who makes dirty videos?"
   "Right. And he wants to know if Marie and I are ripping him off by making pirate copies of his videos."
   "The evil sod!"
   "I suppose it's reasonable from his point of view. He hasn't got any proof against me but others have done it to him and that's made him an even more suspicious sod. He's in a risky business and wants to make sure all the profits go into his pocket."
   "It must be costing a packet to keep Val on your trail."
   "There's a lot of money to be made out of dirty videos. I'm talking about really serious chunks of cash. So I suppose Val's just a routine business expense," Trevolin added with a shrug. "You're certain there's no chance she'll know I gave her your Super-Mickey wafer?"
   "Not if you interrogated her when she was well under."
   "Yes, I left a good margin."
   "Did you find out why she's been feeding you Mickies?"
   "She reckons she's not very good with locks. That's why she lets me bring her in here."
   "And has she found anything?"
   "She said all her reports are dull and negative." Trevolin decided not to mention that Val found him dull and negative too. "So it must be safe to give her the heave now."
   "Don't you think it might be better to let her do the heaving when she stops getting paid to haunt you?" Anton said with a thoughtful frown.
   "Why, do you think she might realize I gave her a Mickey after all the ones she's dropped on me?"
   "There's no way in the world she can prove it. Or even have grounds for suspicion. But she might start wondering if you drop her suddenly for no reason. You know what bloody detectives are like; incurably suspicious minds. The sods are always looking for something they can pin on you."
   "Oh, brilliant! So you reckon I'm stuck with her?"
   "Depends how deep Marie's boss's pockets are. But I do reckon you should leave it up to her. I mean, it can't be for much longer."
   "Maybe you're right," admitted Trevolin.
   "Just as long as the police don't find out she's been going out with you as a job, not socializing. I suppose private eyes do have a social life but you know what utterly suspicious sods the bloody cops are."
   "Oh, thanks!" said Trevolin with a patient smile. "I think you'd better bugger off before you cheer me up any more."
   Anton glanced at his watch. "Right, I do have things to do. Sorry about your ex-wife. In an abstract sort of way."
   "Someone else who's going to haunt me now." Trevolin sighed heavily. "She's not going to be buried and forgotten after the funeral if the police have any say in it."
   Trevolin let his visitor out then he started to tidy up mechanically, ramming the cork back into the bottle that Fernand had opened just before the arrival of the police. He put the mugs in the bowl in the sink to wait for the next round of washing up, then he made a mug of coffee. He thought about making a phone call to Félice's parents. Then he decided that he wasn't in the mood.
   His former in-laws had seemed a nice enough couple but he knew very little about them. They lived a fair distance away and Félice had not been bothered about taking him home on any sort of regular basis. Her attitude had been that she was grown up and a separate individual with another life away from her parents. It had been the same after the divorce; Trevolin had belonged to another unopened compartment in her past.
   Félice had written occasional letters to her parents during their marriage, and made slightly more frequent telephone calls, but her ex-husband could not remember the last time he had seen or even spoken to his former in-laws. He knew that he ought to offer his condolences to them on the loss of a daughter, which they would feel a whole lot more than him. He couldn't help thinking that if they knew that he was being investigated by everyone in sight, they wouldn't want anything to do with him anyway; which would spare all of them a lot of inconvenience.
   As he sipped coffee laced generously with brandy, Trevolin wondered if Chief Inspector Hébert was investigating him because he too believed that there was a connection to porno videos via Marie. Hébert was bound to know about Marie because they had been an item since just before Trevolin's divorce and Hébert had the connections to find out what Marie did for a living.
   Inspector Grollier, Trevolin suspected, had been brief with him only because Fernand, a know trouble-maker, had been hanging around. And Grollier would want to do some digging so that he would be surer of his ground when he started to apply real pressure to the only suspect in sight for a murder. Grollier's attitude had been on the hostile side of neutral and his surprise at Trevolin's failure to watch the television news on Sundays had amounted almost to an accusation of lying.
   With a private eye plus an inspector and a chief inspector of the police peering closely into his dark corners, Trevolin began to feel like an endangered species. He was unable to move without being spied on but if he did nothing, he would lose the Montespan Estate and his huge investment in it. And even if he secured the estate, he would have Charles de Mirelle to contend with when he tried to convert it into cash.
   Marie had introduced him to the American saying When the going gets tough, the tough get going. What he needed, Trevolin decided, was advice on the direction in which to get going; plus a wonder drug from Anton to make him tough.

Trevolin decided to go to his office as normal on Monday morning. There was nothing particular that needed doing there but Inspector Grollier had warned him to stay available and it was Trevolin's natural instinct to do the opposite. Running on autopilot, he went out into an oppressively hot, late July day. His feet found their own way to the Café Perle, where the waiter brought him his usual coffee unbidden.
   It was proper tourist weather. Trevolin just sat and worked his way through the newspaper, ordering more coffee when his cup was empty. He felt glued to the spot by something more potent than sticky sweat. Life was being a bit of a bugger to him. Given a little more of energy, he would have taken a train out into the country for the day but that required directed thought and planning to a degree that was completely beyond him.
   He found a new leaflet pushed under his office door when he arrived at ten past ten. The sections on misusing superglue and magnets were immediately familiar. Fernand and his cronies had been quick off the mark if he and Fernand had discussed them only the day before, Trevolin told himself as he collapsed into his chair. But politically motivated people tend to have nothing much else to do other than cause trouble.
   The office was oppressively hot. He knew that the only way to cool it was to open the window and get his fan going. That simple task was too much of an effort. Trevolin read through the leaflet again, finding that his sweaty fingertips were sticking to the cheap, porous paper.
   There was another dimension to Section 11, he realized. Anyone with a computer equipped with a fax card could send long files containing mainly blank pages to use up the paper in a late-payer's fax machine. Doing it electronically would cut out the chore of feeding sheets of paper into a conventional fax machine. It was the sort of lazy revenge to take on a hot day. Especially if it could be done from another late-payer's fax machine so that he would have to pay for the transmission.
   His mobile phone began to chirp for attention as Trevolin was wondering whether to make himself some coffee. He dug it out of his briefcase.
   "It's me," said Antonia Storr's husky voice. "Where are you?"
   "Location Zero," said Trevolin, meaning his office.
   "Meet me at Minus One in ten minutes."
   "Roger, Wilco, Out." Trevolin pushed the off button.
   Leaving the office for the café in Martin Square, he realized as he returned the phone to his briefcase, meant that he would be even harder to find; unless Inspector Grollier knew that he could be contacted via his mobile.
   The meeting turned out to be a walk-by. Storr was in one of her paranoid moods. Trevolin had been sitting in the café with a cup of coffee for a good ten minutes before she arrived. He waited a ritual two minutes after watching her approach one of the public telephones outside the café, consult the directory and walk away to do some window-shopping. Then it was just a matter of following her until she went into a shop.
   Her choice of a music shop made eavesdropping more or less impossible. There was loud dance music playing and their position at a rack right at the back meant that no one who had followed them in from the street would be able to get near them unobserved.
   "Have you found out who your girlfriend is?" Storr said without moving her lips, flicking through classical CDs.
   "As it happens, I have." Trevolin copied the ventriloquist act. He had thought of a credible story just after leaving the office building.
   "And?"
   "Someone I know reckons he's seen her before: working for the wife in a divorce case. She's a private investigator."
   "Shit! What's she up to?"
   "I shouldn't think it's anything to do with me. These people don't work round the clock, you know. And I've done nothing to attract her attention." Trevolin saw no point in shooting himself in the foot by admitting that he knew that Marie's boss was investigating him.
   "So what's she up to?"
   "What if she's not up to anything? She was just a friend of this woman a mate of mine pulled."
   "You mean, she just fancies you?" Storr sounded sceptical.
   "It does happen." Trevolin kept his voice level, trying to make a statement of fact without excuse or apology. "I do have something of a social life, you know."
   "So she could drop you just as easily?"
   "I suppose so."
   "Try and make it happen quickly. I'm seeing some friends from the East on Friday. I may need you over the weekend."
   "Right."
   Trevolin moved one rack to the left, away from Storr. She turned to sort though the CDs on the other side of the aisle. He moved back down the alphabet until he found an early Alice Cooper recording that had just been re-issued on CD. Storr was looking at the musicals section when he left with his purchase.
   Storr's friends from the East were Czechs from the nation thought to be the biggest consumers of pirate videos in Europe; not that there were any reliable figures on the subject. Discreet circulation of pre-release videos of major feature films was deemed almost legal in Trevolin's homeland if an American film was being ripped off. The Establishment viewed the practice as a counter-blow to the invasion of US culture, which was replacing their beloved but inferior national identity. It seemed likely that the Czechs viewed the importation of alien cultural material in the same light.
   Trevolin wondered why Storr had not mentioned the death in such dramatic circumstances of his ex-wife. He could feel his future slipping away. If Storr piled a police investigation on top of an unfortunate association with a private eye and concluded that he was too much of a liability, he was in dead trouble. His need for the income from pirate video deals was desperate. Whether he would survive to collect his money if he resorted to blackmail to remain involved was another matter.
   Fernand was on his way out of the office building when Trevolin arrived back with a bottle of mineral water in addition to his CD. Fernand was approaching the front door from the direction of printers' work-shop in the basement.
   "Getting more subversive literature printed?" said Trevolin.
   "You saw this morning's effort?" grinned Fernand.
   "I thought you might be delivering my consultancy fee for the magnets and the superglue idea."
   "That was your free contribution to the cause, Comrade."
   "I don't suppose our resident late payer appreciates your leaflets. I bet he thinks they're aimed at him."
   "What, old Frébus? The bloke they want to chuck out of the Small Business Association? If you'd read the leaflets properly, you'd know the campaign's not directed at one- or two-person businesses like his. I happen to know him and I know he'd be only too glad to pay his bills if a few miserable bastards would pay him what they owe him!"
   "Hmm, know the feeling," Trevolin said.
   "No, we're talking about the next tier up from him. About ten to twenty employees and up. Firms with the slack to pay on time but which don't through incompetence, inefficiency, or just sheer bloody arrogant disregard for the welfare of the people who've done work for them or supplied goods."
   "Yes, well, all this sounds very noble," scoffed Trevolin. "But I just can't believe you're really interested in the welfare of small businessmen. I reckon you're more interested in stirring up trouble, Comrade."
   "Yeah, well, you would, you miserable capitalist bastard," grinned Fernand. "Had any more ideas we could use? High-tech things, for instance."
   "It's too bloody hot to think."
   "I'll give you that," nodded Fernand. "Well, I'd better get on. I'm supposed to be at a union meeting right now."
   "Enjoy yourself," said Trevolin. "See you."
   Approaching his office again, Trevolin realized that he was making a mistake. There was nothing to do there and he was carrying all of his essential office equipment about with him. As long as he had the mobile phone and his portable computer, he could set up shop anywhere to tackle a sudden rush of business. He knew that he should be doing something about rounding up deactivated Kalashnikov rifles and checking and disposing of the rest of the goods in the warehouse, but having the police breathing down his neck blew concentration away.
   He walked the length of the first-floor corridor without stopping at his own door and descended the staircase at the far end. Keeping to the shaded side of the street when possible, he headed for home, having opted for a day out in the country. It was too hot to work and there was delicious satisfaction to be had from deliberately ignoring things that had to be done.
   When he arrived home, he locked the computer away in its secure storage compartment, had a shower and changed his clothes. Then he sat down with a long, cold drink and his phone. Calling himself a sad bastard, he began to make calls to locate deactivated weapons for use by a film company. While he was hanging on to the Montespan Estate by his fingertips, an opportunity to take a legitimate profit could not be allowed to slip away. Work first, then play.
   Between calls, he wondered about getting hold of a nice, neat, pocket-size automatic pistol for his own use. Threatening the hated Ron Arnoux with sudden death might just shock him into paying off what he owed; but he doubted it. Fernand could have used Arnoux as the template for his leaflets about those late payers who were full of promises but short on action.
   He thought about calling Hugo Abattis, the financial director of TR, to find out what had happened to the payment that Arnoux had promised him the week before. Then he thought better of it. Chasing up TR was just a waste of breath and something calculated to make him angry. It was too hot for high blood pressure. It was just his luck to be caught up in the meat of Fernand's leaflets.

Chief Inspector Hébert had his shirt sleeves neatly rolled up, showing off the dark hairs on his forearms, his collar open to show more dark hair and his tie knot pulled down to mid-chest. Only the fan on his desk was keeping him cool enough to survive as he tapped at his keyboard, stopping frequently to wipe his sticky fingers with a tissue. Propped up against his computer's disk drive was a surveillance photograph. It showed Georges Trevolin talking to Charles de Mirelle.
   A notepad beside the keyboard contained a list of file numbers, which Hébert had extracted in repayment of a favour. De Mirelle's name did not appear in any of them but Hébert had it on good authority that he was there in spirit.
   There was no direct proof, but that ultra-respectable protector of the nation's heritage was suspected of taking the law into his own hands. He was thought to have tracked down and killed at least seven thieves when an action under a foreign country's law had failed to recover stolen national treasures. He was also a main suspect in the deaths of two collectors and four agents, all of whom had commissioned thefts.
   De Mirelle was rumoured to specialize in bizarre accidents, which were so convincing that they could not be proved to be other than accidents. It was only the convenience factor and de Mirelle's interest in the victim that had aroused suspicion. The strange circumstances surrounding the death of Félice Trevolin seemed to match the pattern.
   Hébert was hoping that Wonder Cop would not have the contacts to be able to make that connection and turn his attention from Georges Trevolin to Charles de Mirelle. He had no desire to see Inspector Grollier crawling all over another of his investigations and spoiling things.
   The events going on around Trevolin seemed to involve Charles de Mirelle as deeply as the late Guy Malard MP and Yuko Takishima. Hébert could see the Montespan Estate as a likely focus of everybody's interest. If Trevolin was clinging to it so desperately, the other players in the game could be equally keen to pry it out of his grasp.
   Claud Raymond had allowed Hébert buy him lunch in a posh restaurant in return for the news that it was now in the national interest for Georges Trevolin to fail to save his estate. Gerard Demineaux, the Treasury official in charge of the matter, now thought that it would be a good idea if the estate went to the nation by default of Trevolin's payments.
   Raymond was sufficiently puzzled and alarmed by the change of attitude to think that the information was worth passing on to Hébert. As Trevolin was in sight of paying off the mountain of death duties, Raymond suspected that malpractice of some sort of was contemplated. Hébert had done some digging during the afternoon. He had learned that there was a scheme in progress involving the estate, but not its nature. The little that he knew carried a whiff of corruption. With such powerful interests involved, Trevolin looked like a man in a small boat which was about to be crushed by converging icebergs.
   Sticking with the iceberg metaphor, Inspector Grollier was just a car-park-size chunk split off by a berg the size of a small country; lethal but heading in the wrong direction. Having seen the debris field at the aquarium, Hébert was confident that a hundred forensic teams would be unable to find enough bits to identify whatever it was that had been used to destroy the tank; if, indeed, a device had been used. The tidal wave had created enough broken glass, sand, gravel, bricks, bits of breeze blocks, metal strips and other unidentifiables to fill completely three average dwelling houses, according to one expert's assessment. And all that junk was strewn over an area the size of a football pitch after being pulverized and homogenized and thoroughly soaked. Searching it was just going through the motions.
   It was Grollier's style to find some telling piece of evidence and then use it to undermine his suspect's confidence. Hébert knew that Grollier would be breathing down the necks of the forensic investigators at the aquarium. He would have a little freedom of action until Grollier realized that he was never going to find anything, or until the forensic team refused to waste any more of their time and budget.
   Then Grollier would have to turn his attention to the main suspect and resort to the usual combination of interrogation, careful checking to identify lies and weak areas in the suspect's story, intimidation to undermine confidence to generate a sense of hopelessness and adding declarations that things would go easier for the suspect if he rolled over and gave in.
   There was a flaw in Grollier's character that made him believe conspiracy theories. Hébert had heard that Grollier had a den at home packed with books that purported to expose the true facts behind the assassination of President Kennedy, the Watergate Hotel burglary and the whole cover-up mess, the real identities of Jack the Ripper, The Man in the Iron Mask and similar historical mystery figures, and government cover-ups of crashes and more controlled landings by UFOs.
   Hébert's spies had told him that Félice Trevolin's bizarre death had captured Grollier's imagination. Worse, he seemed irrationally suspicious of a man who did not watch television and failed to keep up with the local news, which Grollier interpreted as a guilty man's unwillingness to admit knowledge of his ex-wife's death. Hébert was sure that Trevolin was doing things that were doubtful enough to give Grollier legitimate grounds for suspicion and encourage him to develop his Félice Trevolin Assassination Theory.
   Once Grollier start serious digging into Georges Trevolin's life, he would find out about the Montespan Estate. If he failed to uncover just how hard Trevolin was scrambling for money, either through sloppy work or by not digging further when he had enough 'facts' to flesh out his theory, he would be sure that Trevolin was able to afford the best assassins around. Grollier would have Trevolin locked up then.
   It was at that point that things would get awkward for Hébert. He needed Trevolin free and at risk from both corrupt government officials and the likes of Charles de Mirelle if he was to make further progress with his own case. De Mirelle was reputed to be so good at arranging accidents of the type that done for Trevolin's ex-wife that they were never proved to be other than accidents.
   If that was true, then Grollier was unlikely to be able to make his conspiracy theory stick. But he was bound to make a thorough nuisance of himself until he hit the brick wall. Consequently, things would have to get even more awkward for both Trevolin and Wonder Cop if Hébert was to avoid being frozen out. Hébert decided that it was time to put someone closer to Trevolin.
   Thoughts of lots of ice seemed very appropriate on a hot, July Monday. Hébert made a note of the time on his pad. He promised himself that he would work for exactly fifty-five minutes more, then he would switch off and go for a long, cold drink or two. And to hell with unpaid overtime. The nation had enough sad bastards working for nothing not to need any further contributions from himself.

14. Havoc

Ron Arnoux had told his staff that he was working at home. He was certainly at home, and he could be contacted about business matters by phone or fax, but work was not on his agenda. He was still brooding about what had happened to his car and working on his list of enemies. He had the television on - more as talking wallpaper than to watch it. He liked being involved in activity, to have lots of things happening around him and unexplained voices talking so that he could indulge in casual eavesdropping.
   He was sitting on a settee with his portable computer on a coffee table in front of him. Using it involved bending forward at an uncomfortable angle, which made his back hurt, but it was about the only way to use such an old and heavy machine. If he had a decent, up-to-date, colour notebook, which even Toni Storr's bagman George Trevolin had, he would be able to use it on his lap quite comfortably.
   He looked from his noisy old portable, which really needed a body-builder to carry it round for him, and turned his attention to the television. He reached for the remote control at once to change channels. The programme was starting to get quite sickening. Some feeble drone in a pale pink shirt had started to witter on about how importance it is for men to get in touch with their feminine side.
   There was a romantic comedy on the next channel. Arnoux zapped on, telling himself that he would never find himself playing Romeo to some deluded female's Juliet. He didn't believe in letting the debilitating condition of romance get in the way of having a good time. He wanted to sample as much as possible of life's infinite variety.
   If a woman's S.P.I., or specific performance index, failed to come up to expectations, then she was O.U.T. After all, there were millions of women in the world. Why should someone with Ron Arnoux's advantages let himself be stuck with one who had become a drag?
   Arnoux saved the file containing his list of possible 'car crappers' and displayed a directory listing. The amount of free space on his hard disk drive was another source of discontent. He had asked the manufacturers about upgrading to a hard disk of twice the size and they had quoted a cost that was more than the current street price of a new laptop computer!
   Feeling destructive, he went through an obsolete directory and zapped every file in it. He had created the set of colourful graphics to show to a potential client. He had slaved over his slow old portable until four in the morning of the presentation; not that his colleagues had shown much appreciation when he had arrived, having snatched about two hours' sleep, just a couple of minutes before they were due to enter the office to make the pitch to the client.
   His presentation had been a masterly display of the advantages of using TR to get things done. Tractage Rapide knew which wheels to oil and exactly where to apply the oil to best advantage. It was through no fault of his, he felt, that the company had failed to win the account. And as for last-minute scrambles; if people wanted things done faster, they should give him the right information and decent equipment. He felt that his father had some sympathy with his point of view but the non-family managers could be a real pain in the arse. They were even being difficult about his hiring a replacement Mercedes of exactly the same model and colour as his trashed car.
   After zapping the redundant presentation, Arnoux looked at file names, inspected a few files and added one more name to his list of car-crappers. Then he started the defragmentation program, which the resident computer expert at TR had told him would help to speed up file access. Now that his computer was busy for the next hour and a half, he had no excuse for ignoring the heap of paperwork that had accumulated in the briefcase that served as his oubliette. He was unable to summon up any enthusiasm for the chore but he poured himself a glass of white wine from the chilled bottle and prepared to do battle with pieces of paper.
   His usual plan was to sort everything into chronological order, starting in front of the window with a row parallel to that wall, and working back toward the middle of the room, adding a new row for each month. If he had to move the coffee table, he was in trouble because he was more than six months behind with some of his pieces of paper.
   Fortunately, he was able to lay out the first three rows without sorting. He had got that far the last time he had assaulted the paper-work. Each of the rows of invoices-in ended at the mid-point of the window. He had to continue the row to the right with invoices-out for work that he himself had done, all organized in chronological order so that the invoice numbers would be in sequence.
   As he shuffled papers, Arnoux was still going round in mental circles trying to figure out who was behind the attack on his car. The tedious and time-consuming tasks involved in accounting did not help his mood. He hated having to convert often patchy records of his time spent on jobs for clients into invoices to provide the company with revenue, and authorizing payments for work commissioned and goods purchased so that the company could reclaim the VAT.
   Arnoux was sure that the identity of the car-crapper lay in one of the pieces of paper in his brown briefcase. The voice on the phone kept telling him to settle up. Money was at the root of it all. His problem was making suspects stumble. As he worked through a list, contacting them on routine matters, there was no gloating edge to the voices to prove that he had found someone who knew about his secret embarrassment. If he was going to get even, Arnoux told himself as he moved the coffee table aside, then he would have to push harder.

Georges Trevolin was almost expecting to see her when Val Sanjac joined him at the café opposite his warehouse on Tuesday morning. He had just learned from his newspaper that Guy Malard's funeral would take place the next day and he was feeling very twitchy. He had missed any announcement of the death. He could assume only that the body had turned up with a crushed skull but that the manner of death was being kept a secret.
   The newspaper article talked only of the loss to the nation of a brilliant mind. There was nothing about a violent assault, possibly during the course of a crime. Anyone reading the article would think that Malard had died peacefully in his bed, perhaps forced to surrender to a heart attack, cancer, liver or kidney disease, or one of the other 'natural' killers.
   Trevolin had been expecting some sort of anti-crime crusade to be launched with Malard as its dead hero. At the same time, he had to admit that he lived in a country where government control was more absolute than in its EU neighbours through the many secret networks of influence. A great deal could be achieved by a quiet word here and a written request on the right notepaper there. Covering up was a reflex where the agents of government were concerned.
   "Nice day for it," Val remarked, using one of Fernand's favourite phrases. She was wearing very large, dark sunglasses, almost as if she wanted to be taken for an off-duty movie star or a pop star.
   "Not much good for skiing." Trevolin gave her a standard reply. "Having a day off?"
   "I didn't feel like going in to work today. I think I'm going down with something."
   "Coffee?" A waiter had arrived.
   "White, please," said Val.
   "So what brings you round this way?" Trevolin decided to exercise normal curiosity and not give her an easy ride.
   "I was having a look at some of the clothes shops along there. What's your excuse? Business?"
   "I'm just on the way to look at some things."
   Assuming that Val knew all about the warehouse opposite, Trevolin took refuge in the truth. Val seemed oddly subdued, which suggested that she was really was going down with some virulent disease; and that was as good reason as any for not getting too close to her.
   "Anything exciting?"
   "Some computers and things."
   "Boring!" Val summoned a tired smile.
   Trevolin nodded thanks to the waiter when he brought a white coffee and a black replacement for Trevolin. Valerie kept him under close observation from behind her sunglasses, which concealed her eyes very effectively. She had to make a final judgement about him.
   Something had happened to her the previous afternoon. She could remember sitting in her car on an observation job, watching a café from a supermarket car park to see if the woman in her photograph turned up. Then came a blank patch. She had lost about four hours somehow.
   It was as if her life had been fast-forwarded to the rush hour, leaving her with a fuzzy sense of confusion and a powerful and lasting headache. She suspected that she had been knocked out somehow. She knew nothing of what had happened next but she suspected that at least her car had been searched and that Trevolin might be involved.
   Having drugged Georges Trevolin twice to keep him quiet while she searched his apartment for compromising material, she accepted that he might have repaid the compliment. Unfortunately, she and her boss had come up with four more likely candidates. Just when she had been about to deliver a clean report on Trevolin, she was back working on him.
   Her boss had told her to make her mind up by the end of the week. Either Trevolin was just a minor wheeler-dealer and no threat to Emil Lestamp's video-porn empire or he was ruthless enough to exploit Marie Souverain and hard enough to go to any extremes to protect himself.
   As she sat in the café, sipping her coffee and making light conversation, Val was glad of the two male colleagues parked nearby and the radio alarm in her bracelet. Her back-up men were equipped with a hydraulic ram that was guaranteed to break open the door of Trevolin's warehouse in twelve seconds, even if they took their time.
   Trevolin drank his coffee and chatted about nothing much. Then he looked at his watch and announced that he had to get to work. Val accompanied him across the road. As he was opening the warehouse door using his keypad, he had a vision of finding that whoever had used the place for a wild party had strewn it with dead bodies. Luckily, the warehouse was as he had left it the previous Friday evening.
   Having nothing to hide, apart from his access codes, he let Val unpack some of the computers while he set up a trestle table. She seemed computer-literate enough to manage plugging in mains adaptors and booting up.
   Six of the seven laptops had cases of matt black plastic. The seventh was an iridescent, dark green, an extremely unusual colour for a product that seemed limited to beige and black. Trevolin dug out the manual while Val was testing the others. Hers were pedestrian fifth-generation computers; still perfectly good machines but they had been left far behind by the march of progress. According to the manual, his machine used a Sesquire processor chip and matching Sesquire architecture for the circuitry. The name sounded vaguely familiar.
   Trevolin went over to the locked box that contained the wall-mounted telephone. He dialled the number of Tractage Rapide. There was a computer expert on the staff, and as TR owed him a small fortune, Trevolin saw no reason why he should not have a free consultation. He asked for Bill when the switchboard operator answered.
   "Georges Trevolin," he said to Bill. "How are things?"
   "We had a bit of a panic but it's coming under control," said Bill in his usual, impatient tone. Life was forever getting on his wick. "So how are you?"
   "A bit baffled. What does Sesquire mean to you?"
   "I've not heard that name for a while."
   "So you have heard of it?"
   "There was tons about them in the PC mags last year. The makers were hyping what they called The Sesquire Concept. They reckoned you could do things one and a half times better and one and a half times faster on them, using one and a half times less power."
   "Sounds a good idea," Trevolin remarked. "If they ever got it to work."
   "Yes, it was; except they ran into some patent and copyright problems. They ended up selling out to one of the big boys last year and then they just disappeared. They're supposed to have made some bloody good PCs. Why are you asking?"
   "I'm just looking at a laptop of theirs. I was wondering how it rates on the 86 scale: 586, 686, 786?"
   "Why, what's it called?" Bill sounded eager and envious.
   "According to the manual, it's an Ultra."
   "Hang on, I've got some old magazines in my cupboard."
   Bill sounded even more envious as he read technical details over the telephone. Trevolin realized that he had picked up a top-flight machine at less than one-tenth of its original price; if it was in working order. He took his prize over to the power points and set up another table. Val had four laptops plugged in and working on her table. The Sesquire booted up with satisfying speed and the pre-loaded accessories seemed to work.
   "Are those all okay?" Trevolin said to Val.
   "Looks like it," she nodded. "They're quite neat, aren't they? It looks like they've got a package of Windows software on them: word-processor, graphics, spreadsheet. But the manuals are all on disk. You have to pay extra for the printed ones. And there's no back-up disks for the programs. You'd have to make your own. What are you selling them for?"
   "Why, are you interested?" Trevolin put his Sesquire back into its box carefully and unpacked another of the Pentads.
   "I don't know if I could afford one." Val opened the last box and took out the remaining Pentad. If they were in a race to get a PC plugged in and booted up, she won.
   "If you're on the lookout for either a desktop or a portable," Trevolin remarked, "let me know and I'll keep an eye open for something decent. Unfortunately, I sold all these on Friday."
   "What, sight unseen?"
   "Subject to them working. But in an as is condition. I mean, the purchaser is getting them cheap so he can't expect all the guarantees and repair contracts you buy with a full-price PC."
   "Well, this one seems to be going all right, too." Val started the Solitaire game and began to move the markers about the board with a sense of purpose.
   Trevolin did some mental arithmetic. He had paid 21,700 francs for the job lot of computers, which was a ridiculously low price but characteristic of bankrupt stock when the firm selling it had no real interest in raising the market value. The portables were conventional models that could be repaired at normal rates if anything went wrong. The Sesquire might turn out to be an expensive piece of junk if such a specialized piece of machinery failed. He would have to unload it on someone who could afford to scrap it if gave up the ghost.
   Ron Arnoux was an obvious potential customer but he would have to be approached in the right way. Trevolin made a firm promise to himself that he would not let Arnoux walk out with the computer after delivering another vague promise of payment. He would have to plan his marketing campaign very carefully.
   He would have to ensure that all debts were cleared and that Arnoux paid cash on the nail for his super-PC. As for the price, a 25% discount was probably being quite generous, which meant that he would have to ask for at least 35,000 francs and settle for around 30,000. What he needed to do was find out the current market price of a Sesquire Ultra.
   "Oh, shit!" said Val. "I think I've gone wrong somewhere."
   "Can you do that Solitaire thing?" Trevolin joined her and looked at her computer.
   "Yes, I read the instructions for doing it in a magazine. I thought I'd remembered them. I think I'll have to start again."
   Trevolin went back to his telephone as Val cancelled her current game. The previous day, a registered firearms dealer called Wolf Rimmendorf had promised to see what he could find. Today, he could supply as many deactivated AK 74s as Trevolin could handle; on his own peculiar terms. Trevolin resigned himself to some play-acting on Wednesday.
   "Done it," said Val when he rejoined her.
   "Amazing." Trevolin was properly impressed. "What do you do for an encore?"
   "Go home, I think," Val said with a wry smile. "I'd better be there if I'm supposed to be ill. Just in case some sneaky person checks up on me."
   "I hope you get over it soon, whatever it is."
   "That's the penalty of working in a big office, you get all the summer bugs going round."
   "Can I give you a lift?"
   "No, it's all right. And I have some shopping to do. See you when I'm healthy again, Georges."
   "Okay. See you." Trevolin walked her to the door, then began to make serious plans for disposing of his Sesquire.
   Val turned a corner and got into the back of the van containing her backup team.
   "No problems with him?" said Zac, whose broken nose had been reset askew after a particularly violent rugby match.
   "No, he was, well, just like normal," said Val. "Okay."
   "So what do you reckon about him?" said Bert. "Was he mixed up in what you think happened to you yesterday?"
   "No, I don't think he's that good an actor. And you've read the reports we got on his girlfriend. There's no way they've been in contact enough recently for her to pass films to him."
   "A bit of a bugger, that," said Zac. "If it wasn't him or one of his pals that had a go at you, who the hell was it? And are we going to have to find out?"
   "You're sure something did happen?" said Bert, who looked like a bronzed refugee from Muscle Beach.
   "I lost most of an afternoon," said Val patiently. "And it wasn't some sort of fainting fit that a poor, weak woman might have. Somebody definitely did something to me."
   "How do you know it wasn't the female subject you were looking out for?" said Bert. "Getting on with selling her secrets while you were knocked out?"
   "I don't know," said Val. "That's the annoying part of it."
   "Anyway, are we out of here?" said Zac.
   "Yes, let's go," said Val.
   She composed her report in her mind on the way back to the office, admitting to herself that just because she had drugged Trevolin twice, there was no reason to suppose that he had returned the favour. In fact, there seemed little point to doing it in a public car park when Trevolin could have drugged her easily enough in the doubtful comfort of his own apartment.
   Val had concluded that Trevolin was neither particularly hard nor particularly ruthless. He was not the sort of man who could behave as if nothing had happened after drugging her. If anything, he was a follower rather than someone who took the initiative, just another small businessman chasing his tail and staying more or less in the same place.
   Her boss at the inquiry agency told her to make a verbal report to the client then concentrate on the new case, which involved a woman suspected of industrial espionage. Kitty Farge had several degrees but she chose to work as a cleaner for minimum wages. Val had taken an instant dislike to her after reading her file and she was sure that it was Farge who had knocked her out and given her the headache. Val was feeling vulnerable but she knew that the feeling would pass. It would be a pleasure to get down to some serious investigation work on Kitty Farge. The more trouble that she could make for the woman, the better.
   Her plans for Mlle. Farge were well advanced by the time she caught up with Emil Lestamp by telephone. As usual, he had proved very elusive. Lestamp seemed disappointed to hear that she had found no evidence that Trevolin was conspiring with Marie to rip him off. Val suspected that he had received a similarly negative report from the agency that was watching Marie Souverain and his paranoia was feeling under-fed.
   Lestamp told her to send him a final report and a bill. His tone suggested that he saw no point in spending more money on more negative reports. Val typed a contact report with the client into her computer, then returned to plans for exposing Kitty Farge. She always enjoyed jobs that would end with positive action rather than a not-proven verdict.

Emil Lestamp replaced his receiver and gazed out over the heavily polluted but still deceptively blue waters of the Mediterranean Sea. Negative reports from two top-flight firms of private investigators had told him either than he had nothing to worry about or that he was up against a devilishly clever opponent. The trouble was, it would take someone devilishly clever to rip him off.
   From what he had heard, Georges Trevolin had abundant contacts in the world of film- and video-distributors. It was inconceivable that he would not take the chance to make a lot of easy money if it bobbed up under his very nose. Such a neglect of opportunity went against human nature, and Lestamp was an expert on human nature.
   Marie Souverain, he concluded, knew too much about his business affairs but she was so useful that she was too valuable to lose. One way to solve his problem would be to take Trevolin out of the picture, remove the man who was leading Marie into temptation. Saving Marie from herself by putting Trevolin out of action amounted a Christian act.
   Lestamp was in a business that attracted gangsters but he was no gangster himself. He knew that he would not dare go as far as killing Trevolin but putting him in hospital for a while would break the chain. And he could always steer some porno-hunk in Marie's direction to make her lose interest in Trevolin. Finding suitable candidates for both jobs would be no problem for someone with his organizational abilities; if necessary.

Satisfied that the computers were all working and the promised software been installed, Trevolin re-boxed the Pentads and set off on a delivery run. Pierre Rouxget made eight quick phone calls between receiving the invoice and making out a payment order. He was playing the high-powered executive. Trevolin turned the PCs over to a production assistant and headed for another film-maker's office in the same posh area of the city. Luc Gallard called his secretary into the office when Trevolin arrived, carrying two bulky cartons stacked one on top of the other. The secretary was around fifty, dark but greying and wore a sinister sort of moustache. He looked like a stock villain.
   "What about my guns?" said Gallard while the secretary was untangling another laptop's mains adaptor cable.
   "I'm getting them tomorrow," said Trevolin. "What about delivery on Thursday?"
   "I'm heading for Rome tonight. Back Friday morning."
   "I bet it's hotter there than it is here. You must be a bit of a masochist, Luc."
   "They do have this thing called air-conditioning, you know, Georges."
   "Filthy American invention of the Devil."
   "Yeah, I can just see our government trying to ban it; for other people, of course," grinned Gallard. "Vulnerable citizens who would be corrupted by it. What do you reckon to the magic machine, Giulio?"
   "A good buy; when it's been set up properly." The Italian secretary investigated the boxes of assorted software in the other carton. He behaved like a computer expert.
   "Anything there?" said Gallard.
   "They'll all run okay on this one. The next versions really need a Sextad." Giulio started a built-in diagnostic program. "Yes, there's a good, big hard disk drive and lots of RAM. Plenty of room for your games as well."
   "Okay, we'll have whatever programs you think we can use," said Gallard. "Give me a ring on Friday morning, Georges, to fix up delivery for the guns. After eleven."
   "Another late riser," grinned Trevolin. He took an envelope from his inside pocket. "Here's a list of what I've been promised in the way of guns. And some other things he can supply with a bit of notice."
   Gallard took the list out of the envelope and glanced at it as a polite gesture. Then he did a double-take. "Tanks? Helicopter gunships?"
   "Russkies, Germans, Poles, Czechs, they're still falling over themselves to sell old Warsaw Pact stuff," said Trevolin.
   "Check those numbers out, Giulio." Gallard handed the information sheet to his secretary.
   "Interesting; if they're real," said Giulio.
   "This guy must have splashed out on a job lot," said Trevolin. "That's why his prices are so reasonable. And he reckons he's got the stuff in this country. So no hassles about getting import licences. All deactivated, of course. Let me know if there's anything that takes your fancy."
   "Will do," nodded Gallard. "I'll pay you for this lot when you bring the guns on Friday."
   "Okay, I think I can trust you," said Trevolin.
   "You can always trust a man with government backing, Georges," grinned Gallard. "We don't disappear."
   "Not while the trough's still there for you to dip your nose into? See you on Friday, Luc."
   Trevolin made a note of which software packages Giulio had selected and took the carton of rejects back to his car. His next stop was the offices of ex-legionnaire Albert Piraud. The tough-looking receptionist sent him straight into the boss' office.
   Trevolin passed another list across Piraud's uncluttered desk. "Office furniture and hi-fi gear, Albert. You've got first refusal on it."
   "Yes, looks interesting," said Piraud after scanning the list. "I'd like to have a look at it."
   "Tomorrow?"
   "Not the morning. I'm going to a funeral."
   "Anyone I know?"
   "Guy Malard. The Legion are going to give him a good send-off."
   "Sounds like an all-day do. Wednesday's out for me."
   "Thursday? I'll give you a ring in the morning, about ten."
   "Okay. Sounds good. So it's going to be a big occasion tomorrow? For the government and the Legion both."
   "Shocking waste. He wasn't that old, either. And a lovely deal is going up in smoke with him."
   "Something for making serious money?"
   "Guy was working on a scheme to buy some crumbling old pile with an estate like a jungle. Ripe for development. We could have made millions on that deal. But the whole thing seems to have dropped apart without his guiding hand."
   "Win some, lose some more," Trevolin said, wondering how many crumbling old piles with a jungle-like estate were under attack by corrupt politicians and their wealthy friends, knowing that they had to be talking about his old pile. "Any idea where it is, this estate?" he added casually.
   "No, unfortunately," grinned Piraud. "Otherwise, I'd be knocking on the door with a bid myself."
   "Oh, well, there'll be another along in a minute. See you on Thursday." Trevolin headed back to his car feeling quite warm toward his 'friend' Charles de Mirelle. That unofficial guardian of the nation's heritage had deflected an unsuspected attack on his inheritance. It was just as well that de Mirelle knew nothing of Trevolin's own development plan for the Montespan estate. He would have to organize that part of his future very carefully.

Ron Arnoux was having an evening out instead of working but he refused to feel guilty. He had promised to finish off a report on four potential clients for Tractage Rapide, but he had told himself that he was entitled to the occasional evening off. Not that taking Anita out for a meal in a decent restaurant was entirely for pleasure.
   Arnoux had met her while researching one of the prospects and he was using her as a source of information. That was why he intended to claim the meal on his expense account as a legitimate, productive business contact. He assumed that Anita expected to gain from their brief encounter and he intended to push his luck to the limit.
   His diary contained two meetings at his office the next morning. They were with outside consultants rather than TR people. When the time came, Arnoux would cancel the meetings at short notice with a clear conscience, telling the consultants that he was stuck at home, working on his report. Arnoux's life tended to be a series of last-minute scrambles. He was the sort of person who soaks up buzz words, jargon and fashionable ideas. While his personal system of priorities made exasperated others brand him totally unreliable, Arnoux ploughed on with total self-assurance, cloaked in insensitive invulnerability.
   He was lucky: he had a secure job with a family firm and he did make a valuable contribution to its success. Most of his ideas were impractical but some were inspired. Recognizing that 95% of everything is rubbish, the non-family directors of TR accepted his contribution and let those who were dented by contact with Ron sort out their own problems.
   A waiter brought a telephone over to the table just after Arnoux and his guest had started their main courses. It was proof that Arnoux was known in a superior restaurant. He lifted the receiver to his ear with a confident smile.
   "Hello, Ronnie," said a mocking voice. "Just called to ask how you're getting on without your car."
   "Who's that?" said Arnoux sharply.
   "Work it out, genius," laughed the unknown voice.
   Arnoux felt himself frowning and smoothed his face. Thinking quickly, he said, "Okay. I'll sort you out later." Then he pressed the disconnection button.
   "Problem?" said Anita.
   "Just someone trying to drop something on me instead of doing it himself," said Arnoux. "I suppose you get the same?"
   "All the time," laughed Anita.
   Arnoux tried to relax but the call had made him twitchy. He kept thinking about what had happened to his car and the identity of the unseen attacker, who had to be watching him. After the meal, Anita decided to go home alone to finish off a report. She too was a busy executive. Arnoux went home in his hire car feeling like breaking something big and expensive.

Chief Inspector Hébert was parked opposite the restaurant. He had been able to watch Ron Arnoux receive his phone call. He had not driven Arnoux into a rampage but every little jab would wind him up a little more. Hébert's sources had reported that Arnoux was actively seeking the car-crapper and making quite a few waves. Hébert felt confident that if Arnoux had been involved in the deal with Guy Malard and Yuko Takishima, and he knew the surviving members of the conspiracy, then he would go to them eventually for help. More importantly, he would lead Hébert to other conspirators.
   The chief inspector had been a little doubtful about using such extreme tactics at first. He had put his doubts down to lingerings of duty and an obligation to serve the public in non-judgemental ways. The more he learned about Ron Arnoux, the more he felt entitled to judge him harshly.
   As he drove away from the restaurant, he decided to make a few more calls on his untraceable mobile phone over the next few days. They would keep the pot simmering until he had thought of something more spectacular that he could do.

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The original story 1996, AriDorn Enterprises. This version AriDorn Enterprises, 2003