Brief Candle

by Robert Arion

27. Crossed Wires

Aware that he needed to do some work to break his cycle of depression, Georges Trevolin forced himself to go to his office on Tuesday morning. He had his old faithful laptop with him, having reconstructed as much of his business affairs as possible from backup disks and less reliable human memory. The auction catalogue, the note from the computer-nappers and Friday morning's cold coffee were still there on his desk. The postman had brought the usual round of mailings giving him opportunities to spend money he no longer had. Trevolin consigned them all to the wastebin unopened.
    He stooped to retrieve a plain, white envelope with a window, which had become wedged inside the flap of an extra special offer. There was a Treasury Department crest on the envelope. Immune to further bad news, Trevolin sliced open the flap and glanced at the contents. His friend Bernard Avril of the Estate Management Department had sent him a receipt for his payment of the final instalment of death duties. According to the accompanying letter, his transfer documents were no longer to be held in abeyance.
    Trevolin sat down and studied the precious document carefully. It looked genuine enough and he decided that it might be prudent not to ask what was going on. Maybe the credit belonged to Charles de Mirelle, who had moved in a mysterious way. In any event, Georges Trevolin had an official receipt for his money, plus documents to prove that his government had relinquished all claim on the Montespan estate.
   Perhaps de Mirelle would to do the same to the conspirators as he had to the bank, Trevolin thought. Perhaps Charles also ran a service for recovering illegally purchased computers...
   Trevolin sped down the corridor to a neighbour whose photocopier he could use for a nominal fee. He made reference copies then dashed to his other bank to store the original documents in his deposit box. He also took the opportunity to remove his exposé of de Mirelle's murder of Malard. It was a dangerous document that was best destroyed now.
   He decided not to bother changing the instructions to the bank about turning the contents of the box over to the police if he failed to make the monthly payment. Trevolin didn't really care what happened to the documents if he was no longer needed them and the police might enjoy the small mystery of working out why he thought they should take a look at them.

A clandestine meeting with someone always took Albert Piraud back to his Foreign Legion days, when he had been in robust health and able to enjoy sneaking off somewhere to kill his country's enemies. Now, he was reduced to making sure that he was not followed to the apartment of a friend, who was away from the city on holiday.
    Gerard Demineaux joined him as he was drinking sparkling mineral water and wishing that it were champagne. His doctor had assured Piraud that the way to prolong his life was to eat sensibly and drink a maximum of two glasses of wine per day. Piraud wondered sometimes if he could call that a life.
   "Good morning, Albert. I trust you are well?" said Demineaux as Piraud let him into the flat. Demineaux always looked shifty behind his natural smooth confidence on such occasions.
   "Bearing up." Piraud smiled. "And yourself, Gerard?"
   "None the better for this fiasco."
   "So what was it that went wrong?"
   "I suppose people get their wires crossed in the best regulated departments." Demineaux sighed heavily as he sat down then helped himself to a glass of mineral water. "That idiot Manon thought it would be a good idea to mount an assault on friend Trevolin's bank account. Apparently, Trevolin was quite flush with cash after making some sizeable deals."
    "I know," said Piraud with a half smile. "One of them was with me. We both did very nicely out of it, too." Learning that George Trevolin was at the other end of the property swindle had placed no additional burden on Piraud's conscience. Business was business and he owed a greater loyalty to his partners in the swindle than to Trevolin.
    "And the doing nicely was presumably why the idiot Manon decided to spirit it all away and leave him stranded with his final cheque bouncing higher than the Eiffel Tower."
   "I thought you told Manon the plan was to let Trevolin take over the estate then drop him into real trouble then hit him with a way out that he couldn't refuse, even if he was handing over his problems at a fraction of the true value?"
    Demineaux sighed again. "The idiot Manon thought he could cut across all that. He didn't realize how much easier it will be to prize the estate out of Trevolin's hands than the Treasury's."
   "Phuckin' idiot! So what's happening now?"
   "I told Manon to repair the damage. To put everything back as it was. But frankly, Albert, I think the wisest course for all of us at the moment is a hands-off approach for a decent interval."
   "Let the situation stabilize while we regroup, you mean? Then develop the plan of attack from a firmer basis?"
   "Precisely. And I wish you'd explain the current situation to our other investors. And let them know further independent action will not be tolerated. If we didn't need the idiot Manon so much, he'd be out on his ear now."
    "But you think the damage can be repaired?"
   "I think we can proceed on that basis," nodded Demineaux. "Luckily for Manon, things didn't get too far out of hand."

When the messenger brought him another batch of transcripts from the Surveillance Operations Department, Chief Inspector Hébert was not surprised to find yet another contribution from the bug in Georges Trevolin's apartment. Stopping a bugging operation could be like turning off a tap with a wonky washer; there was a trickle, a pause and then a few more drips got through before the flow ceased completely.
    The conversation seemed to be unrelated to any of his cases; or cases that were supposed to be on hold; but Hébert found it interesting anyway. Somebody had just forced Trevolin to sell a computer and he had been severely short-changed on the deal. Finding out why, Hébert told himself, might just give him a chance to do himself a little bit of good in the future.

His mobile began to ring as George Trevolin was thinking of going to lunch after a busy morning divided between banking and trawling auction catalogues. Given a following wind and false optimism with his credit card, he seemed to be on the path to relative solvency by the weekend - always assuming he could buy what he wanted at a decent price and customers accepted his mark-up. In a period of disasters such as he was experiencing currently, nothing could be taken for granted.
   The number displayed on the mobile's hump mean nothing to him. Even so, he put on a deeper than normal voice and a semi-German accent to say, "Georges Trevolin's phone?"
   "Could I speak to Georges?" said a vaguely familiar voice.
   "I shall see if he is about. Who is calling?" said Trevolin.
   "It's Edouard Pétard from Tractage Rapide."
   "Hold on." Trevolin recalled that Ed Pétard was Ron Arnoux's gopher. Clearly, Arnoux had set his deputy on the trail of the missing cheque. Equally clearly, Pétard was phoning from somewhere other than the premises of TR.
   Trevolin wondered if he should borrow the electronic voice distorter that he had sold to the presenter of a music show on one of the minor radio stations. It would be nice to pretend to be some intermediary without having to remember how he was modifying his voice. It would be nice to have a virtual assistant, who could feed back at Edouard Pétard a catalogue of the tired old excuses used on Trevolin by TR. An electronic assistant would be fairly cheap and totally available.
    Trevolin picked up the mobile again, remaining over precise and German. "Hello? He has just zapped off with a client. They may be back in one hour unless they will go on to a meeting."
   "Okay, I'll try him later," said Pétard.
   Trevolin pushed the off button. "Sieg heil!" he added for no particular reason; although he realized that he was indeed entitled to hail a small victory over the forces of oppression led by Ron Arnoux and all at Tractage Rapide.
   If Fernand ever thinks of changing sides, Trevolin told himself, he can publish a charter for the lying, capitalist, fascist, bastard oppressor. Starting with a page of excuses...
   The cheque's in the post even though it was a tired old excuse and as obvious as spitting in someone's face.
   I've lost my cheque book - was quite original.
   I've had my bloody computer pinched - that was even more original!
   The cheque has been raised and it should be posted to you tonight -- offered fairly average insincerity.
   Or the fascist bastard could go in for deliberate evasion.
   M. Trevolin is unavailable because:
      he's on the other line;
      he's in a meeting;
      he had to go out of the office;
[with someone I've just invented to annoy you];
      can he call you back?
      he's gone to a close relative's funeral;
      he's at a conference, back next week;
      he's with a client;
      he had to go into hospital/to the dentist;
[aiming for a sympathy vote];
      he's having car trouble and he's at the garage;
      he's having computer trouble, which means he can't get at any of the files on it including his accounts program, sorry;

   Or the lying sod could shuffle the responsibility off elsewhere as in: My accountant is dealing with the matter. He could then recycle some or all of the previous excuses as reasons why he was unable to contact his accountant. Or he could say, My accountant would have been dealing with the matter if my bloody computer hadn't been pinched!
   Or he could use a really far-out but barely possible excuse:
         My bank has just been robbed and they're sorting out alternative arrangements.
      My bank has just stolen all the money in my account.
      My bank has just been burgled electronically and my account is completely empty.

   The last excuse was definitely closest to the truth in his own case but it had the handicap of being more or less totally unbelievable. Even so, Trevolin decided to jot down his ideas and pass them on to Fernand. The totally committed communist agitator would never become a turn-coat and use the excuses but it was a good way to get one back at him for all the cracks about capitalist bastards.
    As he filled a page of his office notepad, Trevolin told himself that his own current position was totally unreal. Victims of late-payment never get unscheduled over-payments, which require repossession to the great inconvenience of the late-payer. Life just isn't like that.
   It was lunchtime. Trevolin decided to go out and give himself a treat. He had not had a proper meal for days. Despair is a perfect appetite suppressor. And there was another film industry reception the following night, for which he needed his tickets. As if on cue, his mobile began to chirp. Trevolin knew this source number.
   "Hello, this is Giulio, Luc Gallard's secretary," said an Italian voice. "Are you going to be at the reception tomorrow night?"
   "Should be," said Trevolin.
   "Only Luc wants some more bits and pieces. Military stuff."
   "A list would help."
   "I shall try to pin him down." The Italian's voice suggested that he could have problems with the fine detail. "And Luc heard you have some gadget that filters incoming phone calls. It gives the nuisance caller a busy signal if you don't want calls from that number. Is that right?"
   "I might have one left. They proved extremely popular."
   "We need two, if you have them."
   "I'll see what I can do for you."
   "Okay, see you tomorrow night," said Giulio.
   Tickets first, lunch second, Trevolin decided, forcing himself to think in a business-like fashion. He had tried to tell himself that losing the Montespan race had spared him the burden of having to throw more money into the abyss for its upkeep and that he would be able to spend a lot more on riotous living in future. Unfortunately, the self-consolation programme had not worked as well as he had hoped. His problem was that he was used to the scrambling for cash now and at a loose end if it stopped. Even so, he could take time out for lunch.
   He decided to walk to the shop run by Marie's aunt to pick up the tickets in order to sharpen his appetite even more. A really belt-bursting, two-hour, plutocrat's lunch needed proper preparation. His enthusiasm for food took a knock when he emerged from the shop to find Chief Inspector Hébert looking at him through the windscreen of a sinister, black car. Trevolin got into the front passenger seat without prompting.
   "Have you got your money back yet?" Hébert gave Trevolin an unexpectedly boyish grin.
    "I've got a receipt from the Treasury to say my cheque has stopped bouncing," Trevolin said. "Why, did you do that?"
   "I did take a stroll round to your bank and suggest to the manager that I might just have to do an in-depth investigation." Hébert's grin broadened. "And I'd bet there was a very hurried board meeting on Friday afternoon and a unanimous decision to honour the cheque using the bank's emergency funds."
   "Bloody hell!"
   "Then someone on the Old Boy Network phoned your pal at the Treasury, M. Harolin, and told him to present the cheque again. Because there'd been an unfortunate mix-up, which everyone regretted deeply."
   "Phucking hell!"
   "Your police department does exist to protect the citizens of the Republic from evil criminals," grinned Hébert.
   "Yeah, but it comes as a bit of a shock when it works out like that in practice," Trevolin said with feeling. "And none of these sodding Old Boys thought to tell me about their board meeting's decision."
   "Yes, well, that's the way it goes."
   "I suppose I owe you one now."
   "I suppose you do. What did those two men want yesterday evening?"
    "Are you having me watched?" frowned Trevolin.
   Hébert just looked at him, letting him draw his own conclusion. If Trevolin thought that he was being watched, he would never suspect that his apartment had been bugged. And if that idea did occur to him and he searched the place, the devices had been removed anyway.
    "I bought a fancy computer in an auction," Trevolin said when he realized Hébert was giving him the silent treatment. "It may have been put in by mistake. Anyway, these two characters made me sell it to them for forty-five thousand francs."
    "And what?" frowned Trevolin.
   "What was the catch?"
   "They made me sign a sale document saying they gave me forty-five thousand but they only paid me a thousand."
   "But you didn't rush round to your local police station to make a complaint?"
    "My word against theirs?" scoffed Trevolin.
   "So it was a bit special, this computer?"
   "Pretty special."
   "Any interesting files on it?"
   Trevolin frowned at Hébert, assuming that he knew something when the chief inspector was just guessing. "There were some files but I couldn't read them. In fact, I copied them off onto floppies when I put my own software on the machine."
   "And did you overwrite the space they occupied? So they couldn't be undeleted, for instance?"
   "I suppose so."
   "Interesting. So these characters might just come back to check whether you moved the files or just deleted them."
   "If the files are important."
   "Suppose we find out?"
   Trevolin fastened his seat belt and waved goodbye to his belt-bursting lunch. Chief Inspector Hébert drove him home to collect the floppy disks containing the mysterious files. A red mid-range Volkswagen followed them when they left Warend Street again. Hébert noticed that it had turned round while they had been inside Trevolin's apartment building. The car had been facing north, toward him, when he had parked across the street. It just pulled out smoothly from the kerb and followed him when he carried on in the direction of the city centre.
   "Two men, dark hair, darkish complexions, thirty-five, forty, forty-five," Hébert remarked, half to himself.
   "Right," said Trevolin.
   "Don't turn round but they're following us."
   "So what now? Let them catch us then shoot them?"
   "You're a blood-thirsty sod, Georges, did you know that?"
   "I'll take that as a no," Trevolin said regretfully.
   "What we're going to do is lose them accidentally."
   "And they'll go back to your place to carry on waiting for you to show up again. So we'll know where to find them."
   "Then you're going to shoot them?" Trevolin said hopefully.
   "You wouldn't believe the aggro we get when we have to shoot someone," said Hébert. "And shooting two of them!"
   "I'll take that as another no," said Trevolin regretfully.
   Makes you wonder what bloody use the police are, he thought quietly to himself.
   Hébert managed to lose the tail by some amber-gambling while it was stuck two cars behind him. Three fast turns made him impossible to catch before he reached the headquarters of the Anti-Corruption Squad. Trevolin acquired a plastic lapel tag that described him as a visitor. Hébert took him down a couple of floors in a lift to a cool, quiet working area.
   Most of the lights were out but there was a lone technician sitting at a computer in a pool of soft, yellowish light. Hébert presented him with the disks and told him that he wanted to know what was on them. The technician carried out a routine virus-scan then started a program that Trevolin did not recognize. The monitor screen filled with rows of pairs of numbers on the left and strange symbols on the right. Then some words appeared among the symbols.
   "Right," said the technician. "These look like DFX files."
   "Of course, they do," Hébert said in a matter-of-fact tone.
   "CAD files," added the technician, ignoring the sarcasm. "Computer Assisted Design. They may be engineering drawings but I don't have anything on this machine to display them." The technican moved to another bench and switched on another computer. As suspected, the files on the floppies proved to be drawings of some mechanical device or other; either units of a larger machine or a set of independent devices.
   "So what is it?" said Hébert.
   The technician shrugged. "Some sort of motor? That looks like a drive shaft and one of the other bits looked like a gear-train of some sort."
   "A revolutionary engineering concept?" said Hébert.
   "Beats me," said the technician. "Not my field."
   "Industrial espionage?" said Trevolin.
   The technician shrugged.
   "Or something in development by a firm that went bankrupt. A gadget someone wants back so he can claim ownership and make a lot of money out of it," said Hébert. "Or some other reason that we haven't thought of. Thanks, Alain. We won't disturb you any further."
   The technician exited from the CAD program and switched the computer off before returning to his work area. Trevolin reclaimed the disks. "What now?" he said as Hébert escorted him to the lift.
   "Now, you go home," said Hébert.
   "What's the catch?" said Trevolin.
   Hébert just smiled to himself.

Ten minutes later, Trevolin took out his keys and climbed the steps at the front of his apartment building with a feeling of déjâ fait. He could feel the two men approaching silently from behind him. Irrationally, he wondered whether they had closed the door of their car quietly or left it open and the vehicle at the mercy of any passing thief.
   Then he was part of a crowd and going upstairs.
   "We're interested in the files that were on that computer," the man with the darker tan said. He was wearing a similar dark suit to his companion but an electric blue tie. The other man's tie looked like the result of a nasty accident with a chainsaw.
   Trevolin opened his mouth to make a defiant remark, backing right across the sitting room to the far wall.
   "And before you get smart with us," added the man with the blue tie, "we just happen to have brought this with us." He took a padded object out of his pocket. It looked like a scaled-down surgical collar. "What we do is fasten it round your neck and cut off your air supply if we don't like what you're telling us. And if you keep lying to us, we might not take it off again."
   Trevolin struggled not to smile as his front door opened briskly but silently. Chief Inspector Hébert had a spare key. He was also holding an automatic pistol. It was aimed at one of the intruders in such a way that if the bullet went right through his blue tie, it would smash the life out of Georges Trevolin too.
   The other man sighed heavily. "There's no point in trying that old trick. Pretending there's someone behind us."
   Chief Inspector Hébert cocked the hammer of his pistol with an ominous click. "They do say the old ones are the best," he remarked in a conversational tone. "I want you two on the floor on your faces right now. Don't think about it. Do it!"
   The man with the blue tie had the nerve to look round to make sure that there was really a gun aimed at him. Then he obeyed. His partner was already on the floor. Hébert applied two sets of handcuffs with slick expertise, then let the men sit up against the wall.
   "Nice little gadget, this," he remarked, examining the collar. "Looks like it's very nicely padded so doesn't leave any marks on the victim's throat if you cut off his oxygen too freely. If I don't get some answers, I'll be able to find out just how good it is," he added with a smile.
   Trevolin noted that Hébert had examined the collar one-handed and that the automatic pistol had remained pointing in the general direction of the prisoners.
   "Okay," said Hébert. "What we have is a problem for you to resolve. You stole a computer from my colleague, here..."
   "He sold it to us," said the man with the blue tie. "And the deal will stand up in any court."
   "We're not talking about going to a court," smiled Hébert. "We're talking about whether I'm going to use this collar on you; or put bullets through your knees and your elbows, which is bound to make your colleague a lot more co-operative."
   "You're bluffing," said the man with the blue tie. "You can't shoot us here."
   "No, but we have your car outside," Hébert told him. "So we can go somewhere nice and quiet. We can either do that or we can sell you the files that were on the computer."
   "I have to make a phone call."
   "Do you know the number too?" Hébert asked the other man.
   He nodded eagerly.
   "Okay, come over here."
   The man struggled to his feet. Hébert released the handcuff from the prisoner's right wrist, made him sit down, then handcuffed his left wrist to his left ankle.
   Trevolin opened a bottle of water and filled a glass. Watching experts in action was a thirsty business. He suspected that Hébert had not identified himself as a cop as a bargaining ploy. The chief inspector was holding the threat of arrest in reserve because it was a weaker persuader than the threat of crippling someone in an incredibly painful way.
   The man with the blood-and-guts tie keyed a number on Trevolin's telephone. Hébert took over the negotiations when he had reached his client. Five minutes later, Trevolin opened doors while Hébert shepherded two handcuffed prisoners down to the street. It was a sunny Tuesday afternoon and there were people passing by in the street. Nobody looked more than once at the handcuffed men, which Trevolin found rather weird. What, he asked himself, had happened to curiosity?
   Trevolin drove the car and followed directions from the men in the back while Hébert sat in the front passenger seat watching the prisoners. Their destination proved to be a large house in a suburb to the west of the city. Hébert recovered one pair of handcuffs by chaining the prisoners together through a door-handle of their car. Trevolin was surprised to see him show his identity card to the man who opened the front door of the house. Hébert had taken the instant decision that he would make better progress as a cop.
   "Yes, Maréchal Engineering," Hébert remarked as he and Trevolin followed a tall, balding man to his home office. "Your firm collapsed as a result of some European deal that went sour on you. Something to do with development problems and the money running out when your bankers got cold feet."
   "I hardly think this present business is a police matter, Chief Inspector," said Maréchal in a hopeful tone as he offered them chairs in a room filled with computer gadgets and large-scale plotters for making engineering drawings.
   "Well, that depends whether M. Trevolin gets his computer back," said Hébert. "And whether he wants to press charges over the way he was forced to sign a sale document and then got short-changed rather severely."
   "That was none of my doing," said Maréchal quickly.
   "Except in your role of employer of the two people you sent to do the deal, and as accomplice and accessory to their illegal actions," Hébert remarked.
   "But do you have the files?" Maréchal interrupted.
   "DFX files?" said Hébert. "Engineering drawings? Probably the property of the official receiver of your business."
   "So you do have them? I'm prepared to offer ten thousand francs in cash for them."
   "I seem to remember forty-five thousand was the initial offer," Hébert said, half to himself. "M. Trevolin expects compensation for the inconvenience your men caused him; and his computer back in good order, too."
   "This is it." Trevolin had crossed the room to investigate a familiar shape.
   "I really need that PC," said Maréchal.
   "So does M. Trevolin. But I'm sure he's prepared to be quite reasonable. He'll let you copy any files you've put on it."
   A process of negotiation began. Trevolin let Hébert get on with it, just nodding agreement when required. He left the house with his Sesquire and an envelope containing 65,000 francs in new notes. The pessimist in him suspected that they were all forgeries.
   The man with the blood-and-guts tie drove them back to Trevolin's apartment. Before he let their driver return, Hébert flashed his identity card and delivered a stern warning about knowing where to look if anything happened to Trevolin. Then he invited himself in for a celebratory drink.
   "You can really get things done," remarked Trevolin as he poured two glasses of the good cognac. "I suppose it's no use offering you a commission on the deal? Police office on duty, and all that?"
   "I think twelve and a half per cent is usual," Hébert told him. "And police officers do moonlight, you know."
   Trevolin counted off 8,000 francs as his best approximation to one-eighth of his haul.
   Hébert pocketed the notes with a smile. "Are you going to that film-industry binge tomorrow night?"
   "Yes, I am. I suppose you want my spare ticket?" Trevolin surrendered it.
   "Where are we going?"
   "Hotel Magneta. Main conference room. Eight o'clock on."
   "Okay. See you tomorrow night, Georges." Hébert drained his glass and headed for the door.
   "Yeah, see you."
   Trevolin let Hébert out then poured himself another drink, realizing that he had got out of gaol very cheaply. The price had been a little bit of someone else's money and a free ticket to a reception, which he would have given away anyway. An empty feeling inside reminded him that he had not had his celebratory lunch and he was drinking on empty stomach. A fit of what the hells sent him into the kitchen in search of something quick.
   He had won two in a row! He had got his inheritance back and his fancy computer. Such good fortune meant that he had to owe some pretty big favours to Charles de Mirelle and Chief Inspector Hébert. He realized, as he built a sandwich, that he should be feeling sorry for his bank manager, who had been crushed between irresistible forces. But he couldn't find it in his heart to have any charitable feelings at all for C.R. Jupet.

His nemesis caught up with Georges Trevolin at the reception the following evening, while he was celebrating a successful day at an auction. Ron Arnoux caught him at the bar at the Hotel Magneta but he started to talk about the big house in the country, to which he knew Trevolin had access.
   "Convenient for the city, isn't it?" Arnoux said.
   "Takes twenty-five minutes to get there without pushing it," nodded Trevolin.
   "Only we might need a place like that."
   "I should think the availability depends on movie-making plans. Why, are you going into the film business, Ron?"
   "Not exactly. Have you any idea of the hiring costs?"
   "Depends what you want to do with it. I should think the day rate will be around twenty thousand francs but you'll have to talk to the agent. And as I said, the actual price will depend on the details of time and requirements."
   "We'll have to get that from the client if the deal goes through. It's all still up in the air at the moment. By the way, did Ed get in touch with you earlier?"
   Trevolin assumed that Arnoux was dropping a hint about the overpayment cheque. It seemed to be a mention in passing with no particular attempt to press the matter; probably because he wanted to pump Trevolin for information about the estate.
   "I had a message he'd called me," Trevolin lied, "but I wasn't able to do anything about it. I've been having a lot of trouble with my bank that needs sorting out."
   "Which one?"
   "City and Commerce."
   "Oh, my father heard something about an attempted electronic raid on the bank but its computer defences foiled it."
   "That must be it. What a relief to know they've got a decent security system," Trevolin added with undetected sarcasm. He had known that the bank would dish out a load of tosh rather than admit the truth. He had not expected such a blatant lie.
   "Excuse me, can I borrow M. Trevolin?" said a polite voice with an Italian accent.
   Trevolin allowed himself to be rounded up and steered toward Luc Gallard, who had organized a base of operations at a corner table that was well loaded with assorted goodies. The conference table, which normally dominated the centre of the room, was designed to be disassembled into smaller units for strategic deployment.
   "That was a great house you put us on to, Georges," Luc Gallard beamed, offering a flute-glass of tax-payers' champagne as if he had bought it with his own money. "And a real bunch of characters looking after it."
   "Glad you liked it." Trevolin helped himself to one of the crab with lime canapés that Gallard always cornered. "You want some more gear from me?"
   "If you've got a line on those ex-Soviet jeep clones? What are they called?"
   "Rafins," said Giulio.
   "My supplier's good on vehicles", said Trevolin. "How many do you want?"
   "And some RPGs."
   "Shit! You're not planning to fire them around the estate, I hope? We'll have every Green nut-case in Europe down on us."
   "Nope," Gallard said through a broad smile. "These are just for show."
   "You mean empty cases? No explosive and no rocket fuel?"
   Trevolin frowned, calculating hurriedly. Jeeps clones were no problem but rocket-propelled grenades sounded like a low-to-no-profit deal tied up in regulations. "To be honest with you, Luc, it might be cheaper to make mock-ups. I mean, you're going to have to pay someone to take the explosive and the solid rocket fuel out; which is hellish dangerous and will make them hellish expensive. And you'll need enough deactivation certificates to paper this whole bloody room!"
   "I did actually mention that," said Giulio resignedly.
   "Just testing, Georges," grinned Gallard. "Just making sure you're still in the real world and not on some cloud. Forget the RPGs. But I could do with some more deactivated pistols."
   Trevolin tried to hide his relief. "Same terms as before?"
   "Sounds good to me. Ah, J.J. How are you?"
   Gallard stood up to shake an acquaintance's hand. Trevolin had to struggle to keep a straight face when Gallard introduced him to Jacques Jabouit, the chief executive of CJN Management Consultants, knowing that he was in the presence of the chief bogeyman of Robert Fernand and the Air Liberation Front.
   Jabouit had just removed a cigar from its cellophane wrapping. He flinched when Gallard reached into his jacket and pulled out a pistol. Then he smiled when a flame sprouted at the end of the barrel. Trevolin also accepted a light for his humble cigarette.
   "Good thing for giving your bank manager a heart attack," laughed Jabouit.
   "Georges supplies them," said Gallard. "What does it feel like to be standing next to an arms dealer?"
   A mobile started to chirp. It turned out to be Giulio's. He listened for a moment, then passed it to Luc Gallard. Trevolin and Jabouit took their glasses discreetly out of earshot. Giulio handed Trevolin an envelope in passing. He assumed that it contained details of Luc Gallard's requirements.
   "Arms dealer, eh?" remarked Jabouit.
   "Only deactivated weapons for the film industry," Trevolin hastened to assure him. "I can't help if you're planning a military coup."
   "And Luc must have got someone else to do the conversion into the cigarette lighter. It wasn't like that when he got it."
   "A useful corporate present for someone special."
   "As long as they only use it in their office or at one of these receptions, where you expect that sort of thing. You wouldn't want someone important to you getting shot by a cop or a security guard by mistake."
   "True," nodded Jabouit. "Do a lot of business with Luc?"
   "A fair amount. I don't just supply weapons."
   "You're not in the property business, by any chance? Or know someone in that line? I was told you can get an inside track on just about any professional service at these bashes."
   "What sort of property?"
   "Someone mentioned Luc was looking at a big country house not too far out of town."
   "Yes, I believe he is."
   "I was wondering what sort of deal he was offered."
   "You want a word with Giulio about that. He probably sorted that out with the agent."
   "I've just been speaking to someone who quoted a day rate of twenty-five thousand francs."
   "That may be appropriate. It depends what you want it for, really. And what services you need to include in the price."
   "It's a film-makers' conference sponsored by the EU. People below the level of Luc's operation. Independent operators. We just want somewhere big and impressive to use during the day."
   "You're not looking for hotel-style accommodation?"
   "Not overnight accommodation, no. Excuse me. Someone I must talk to."
   Caught with one of land agent Frank Harrison's cards half out of his pocket, Trevolin replaced it as the business opportunity dashed away to speak to someone else.
   Can't catch 'em all, he told himself philosophically.
   "That's where you're hiding yourself," said a familiar voice behind him.
   "So I'm not hiding well enough?" Trevolin turned to face Chief Inspector Hébert. "Having a good time...?" He almost said Chief Inspector. Calling Hébert Chris or even Christian didn't feel right.
   "What do you know about that brunette in the green dress over there?"
   Trevolin looked across the room at a good-looking woman with a fair crowd of admirers. "Nothing. Why, who is she?"
   "Only your mate Ron Arnoux's sister."
   "Really? I knew he had one but I've never met her. And I don't know anything about her."
   "And what about the blonde in the yachting blazer? Four metres away to her right and keeping her under observation?"
   "You know her, then?"
   "Her name's Valerie Sanjac. She's a private investigator." Trevolin looked away quickly before he caught Val's eye.
   "Interesting!" said Hébert. "Are you going to introduce me?"
   "Like that, is it?"
   "Probably." Trevolin refused to be drawn.
   "And what about the woman in the black dress talking to the Arab with his tongue hanging out? Two tables from your pal Luc Gallard?"
   "Don't know her, either."
   "I thought you said you knew absolutely everyone in the film business, Georges?"
   "Not the groupies. Why, who is she?"
   "Kitty Farges or Defarges. Industrial spy. Your pal Sanjac's been watching her too."
   "That figures if she's a snooper and Val's a private eye."
   "What interesting people you meet at these dos. Excuse me, Georges, must circulate."
   "Yeah, sod off, why don't you?" Trevolin muttered quietly.
   Turning his back on Val Sanjac, he headed for an archway that led to a corridor. Three others were using it as a communal phone booth. Trevolin got through to Wolf Rimmendorf almost at once. The German was available 24-hours a day for making money. Soviet army-surplus jeeps and two dozen Makharov pistols were no problem. Trevolin rang off, wondering what he was going to do for money. With any luck, his bank manager would be feeling embarrassed enough to advance some cash. It was an avenue to be explored in the morning.
   As he returned to the conference room, Trevolin recalled that Ron Arnoux had been moaning about all the hoop-jumping involved in working for CJN. He wondered if Jacques Jabouit had been talking to good old Ron and whether Tractage Rapide was planning to stick the odd 5,000 francs per day on top of his own price for the use of the house on the Montespan Estate; 5,000 francs for doing absolutely nothing and providing no services. The idea outraged Trevolin but he knew that his rage was impotent. There was obviously a lot of Euro-cash sloshing around and if TR was getting so much so easily, it just rubbed in the lesson that life is essentially an unfair process.
   Trevolin consoled himself with the thought that Jabouit would get Frank Harrison's phone number from the efficient Giulio. And if he went straight to the supplier and Trevolin's agent was able to undercut TR, that was just the dog-eat-dog business world in operation. Somehow, given his record in the luck stakes, Trevolin felt that it was a forlorn hope. The likes of Ron Arnoux seemed destined to prosper while the likes of Georges Trevolin struggled.

28. Power Plays

Georges Trevolin decided to use his electronic access to obtain a statement of his account before he went to cross swords with the manager of his branch of the City and Commerce Bank. He was amazed to find the account restored to its state of a week earlier, before all the trouble had started. Every centime of the missing money was back and he had not lost the big chunk that represented his payment of death duties to the Treasury. And yet, he had the precious receipt in his possession to prove that he had paid the money.
    Deciding not to question a convenient turn of events, Trevolin rushed straight to the bank with a briefcase. The counter clerk was used to him drawing substantial sums in cash after his recent deals with Wolf Rimmendorf and he seemed not to be aware of the fun and games around Trevolin's account during the last week. Expecting to be hauled back at any moment, Trevolin walked out of the bank having converted almost the entire contents of his account to portable cash.
   It was not until he was walking down the street that he began to realize how reckless he had been. There he was with a briefcase stuffed with money at the mercy of every mugger and luggage thief in the city. The way his luck was running, he was bound to have lost the cash by the following day, when he had arranged to meet Wolf Rimmendorf to do the deal.
   And then he realized that his feet had chosen their own destination. He was heading for the bank where he had his deposit box. The cash would be as safe there as the rest of his bits and pieces, and probably a lot safer than in the C&C Bank. Trevolin began to stride ahead with new purpose. When he had unburdened himself, he had two local auctions to attend.

Trevolin was at his warehouse, surveying the haul from the auctions, when his mobile phone rang for the first time that day. Frank Harrison, his land agent in Ybrantan, sounded quite amused.
   "Old man Torrence has just been on the phone. We've had some visitors at the estate," he chuckled. "They just turned up, out of the blue, demanding to be shown round. But they got the bum's rush from the Torrences."
   "Quite right, too," said Trevolin. "Unless they were potential clients wanting to give us huge contracts. Have you got any further information on them, like descriptions?"
   "Torrence said one of them was about thirty, dark hair, real sharp suit and a real arrogant bastard. The other was fifty or so, and may have been called J.J."
   "Sounds like some people I was talking to at a reception last night. The younger one is from a firm of facilitators called Tractage Rapide. Name of Ron Arnoux. I have a feeling he wants to hire the house and then sub-let it to this other guy at a day rate of twenty-five grand."
   "The cheeky bastard!"
   "Or as close to that as he can get. So I think he must have brought this J.J. character over for an unofficial look."
   "Without letting him near me?" said Harrison.
   "I think that's the idea. This J.J., whose name is Jabouit, by the way, might just get in touch with you direct. He was going to find out who Luc Gallard contacted to look over the house. It looks like he may not have caught up with Luc again last night. But he may make the effort now."
   "So if he does get in touch, we undercut friend Arnoux and bump him out of the deal?"
    "Right in one."
   "Okay. What I called you about is I've had an unofficial inspection of the house by a government inspector. He reckons there's some work needs to be done before it can be used for business functions. Not much, but it's as well to get it done right away. And I've also got a list of some jobs that need doing from our security-guard caretakers."
   "Okay, I'll arrange to call round to collect these lists."
   "I've also arranged for some food and drinks on Saturday as M. Gallard and his people want to have a good look at the house. Would that be a good time to come over? Or do you want me to carry on fronting for you?"
   "Yes and yes," said Trevolin. "There's someone I can bring who might prove useful as far as some of the refurbishing is concerned. But I'd prefer it if you look after the clients."
   "One last thing, something quite weird happened last Friday afternoon. I opened some mail that had gotten overlooked and I found a cheque you gave me returned marked insufficient funds. Then, five minutes later, the bank rang to say it was all a mistake and would I re-present the cheque."
   "So you've got the money okay?"
   "Well, sure, yes."
   "That's okay, then. I've been having some trouble with the bank. It must have been electronic gremlins in their computer, but they wiped my account out then restored it. No explanation to me, of course."
   "Weird," said Harrison.
   "And worrying," said Trevolin. "See you on Saturday."

Wolf Rimmendorf wanted his usual adventure in the woods but Georges Trevolin had told him that he would have to drop his price if Trevolin had to hire seven other drivers to take the ex-Soviet jeep clones to his warehouse. The Rafins arrived in two waves, the first group trapping Toni Storr's car behind a wall of dull olive-green.
   A van took the drivers back to the depot to collect the second batch. Wolf Rimmendorf sat down at a portable table to count the money between assaults on the drinks and snacks sent over from the café opposite. Trevolin sat at a stronger table, unwrapping Makharov pistols and patiently making sure that the each barrel was firmly plugged and each firing-pin tunnel contained just fresh air.
   "Enjoy playing with guns, Georges?" remarked Rimmendorf, topping up his glass with imported Belgian beer.
   "Not half as much as you enjoy counting money," grinned Trevolin. "This is just a chore to me."
   "What's in the cage?"
   "Bankrupt stock from a couple of auctions. Desk-top photocopiers, scanners for use with a computer, some ink-jet colour printers, some cartons of special coated paper for use with the ink-jets and a whole bunch of CD ROMs."
   "Nothing interesting, then?"
   "No big boxes of money, no," Trevolin said with a grin.
   "Yours seems to be all here." Rimmendorf tossed the last bundle of notes carelessly into his open briefcase and picked up one of the pistols. "Nice guns, these. Or they were before they got plugged."
   "Did you know they're the latest thing in corporate gifts?"
   "Converted into a cigarette lighter."
   "Yeah?" Rimmendorf looked at the deactivated weapon with renewed interested.
   "Can we get the paperwork sorted out while we're waiting for the next batch of jeeps?"
   "Bugger this, isn't it, Georges?" sighed Rimmendorf. "You ought to be able to hand the goods over in exchange for the money and just shake hands instead of acting as a bloody unpaid tax collector for the bloody government with VAT and all that crap."
   "Yeah. You haven't got any atom bombs we could drop on them?"
   "Not in stock, but I have heard there's some stuff coming out of Russia called Red Mercury that lets you build a nuclear device the size of a boule. What about something like that for a surgical strike that would make the tax collectors shudder in their shoes? Take a building out of a row like a rotten tooth. That would make the bastards sit up and think!"
   "I hope no one's got this place bugged," said Trevolin, half seriously.

Four more Rafins arrived in due course. Trevolin and Wolf Rimmendorf completed their paperwork. The arms dealer left in a van with his drivers. Moments later, Ron Arnoux let himself into the warehouse. Trevolin began to wonder if he was using one of the waiters at the café opposite as a spy and cursed himself for not locking the door.
   "Just passing," said Arnoux. "Having another sale? Wow!" Arnoux stared at some unwrapped pistols that were waiting to be checked and re-wrapped in their protective pouches.
   "No, I'm getting into urban terrorism," Trevolin told him.
   "There's a lot of money in it, Ron. And a lot of them around in the city. Like the gangs that were blowing up toilets. And the bunch that started the Air Liberation Front campaign. Their next step is bound to be an armed escalation."
   "Don't talk to me about those sods," Arnoux said bitterly. "They cost me half an hour hanging around when they let my tyres down at a meeting with a client."
   "I'd like to shove them down a bog and blow it up."
   "I know how you feel," said Trevolin with hidden irony. "Oh, yes. You know you mentioned that country house Luc Gallard's using? There seems to be quite a bit of interest in it."
   "How do you mean?"
   "Someone else at the reception the other night mentioned he was looking for a place like that."
   "Oh? Who was it?"
   "I didn't get his name. It was just something he mentioned in passing while I was sorting another deal." Trevolin hoped that his vagueness would leave Arnoux wondering if someone else was horning in on his deal. He thought that a little bit of uncertainty in Ron Arnoux's life would be good for him.
   "You've got plenty of stuff in." Arnoux changed the subject and surveyed the well-filled warehouse. "What are these things? Are they Russian?"
   "Toys for the movie boys. As far as I'm concerned, it's drive 'em in and drive 'em out as quick as possible."
   "Well, I'd better get back to the grind. Did you get your bank sorted out?"
   "I'm still waiting to hear from them." Trevolin told the truth without answering the question. "I suppose I'd better get on, too." He picked up a pistol and began to rewrap it neatly.
   His mobile began to chirp soon after Arnoux had gone. Frank Harrison had just taken a call from a Michel Paretique of CJN Management Consultants, who wanted a meeting to talk about hiring the house at Ybrantan for three days. Trevolin returned to his checking with a glow of contentment.
   The contentment changed to alarm as he reached the last few pistols. When he pushed his ramrod into a barrel, it met resistance for a moment then moved deeper. Trevolin pulled back the slide. He could see an object just poking out of the breech. He applied the slide lock, inverted the pistol and pushed again. The plug clattered onto his work-table. Finding a firing pin in the allegedly deactivated weapon came as no surprise. He was holding a completely live weapon.
   It would be just my luck for some bloody copper to come in now and sodding well arrest me, Trevolin thought sourly. Even though I don't have any bullets. And this weapon is properly certified as deactivated.
   He put the pistol on one side while he checked the rest. They were securely plugged and had no firing pins. Trevolin thought briefly about getting hold of a clip of ammunition and keeping the pistol in case he needed to shoot someone: like Ron Arnoux, or even himself. Then he decided that he wasn't really the killer type. The only thing to do with the gun, he realized, was to strip it down, take out the firing pin, clout the plug with a hammer to distort it a little, then hammer it back into the barrel using a steel rod to get it good and stuck.
   His mobile chirped again as he was trying to drive the plug home without causing damage that would be visible when he had reassembled the pistol. Toni Storr was back from the Czech Republic and she wanted her car back. Trevolin cut short a list of directions for delivering it to tell her that she would have to wait until it became available.
   Storr was a bit put out to hear that her vehicle was stuck behind a warehouse full of goods but there was nothing to be done about it. She had stayed away longer than planned and she had failed to give him any notice. Being in charge of part of her life for a change was an unusual experience. Power, Trevolin felt, could corrupt him very quickly.
   He promised to call Storr when the car could be extracted, then turned to his hammering. When he had finished that job, he realized that he had time in hand to compose a catalogue for a sale the following week. He anticipated a long wait before drivers from the film company arrived and Luc Gallard's accountant delivered the all-important cheque with the paperwork.
   Trevolin had already decided that it would be wise to open another business account at the bank that housed his deposit box. He no longer trusted the C&C. Giving Charles de Mirelle as a reference, he felt sure, would smooth the business of opening an account with the cheque for the jeeps and guns.

When he arrived at the estate as its undisputed owner early on Saturday morning, Trevolin found Frank Harrison juggling two groups of visitors. Harrison was giving his personal attention to Jacques Jabouit and Michel Paretique of CJN. Luc Gallard's party had been entrusted to Janine Torrence, the caretaker's daughter, for their inspection of the house.
   The film makers were talking about a big production the following year and they were saying that the estate looked an ideal base of operations for them. Harrison had used a local firm of caterers to provide a buffet and old Torrence and his sons were hanging around, making themselves useful and looking forward to attacking the left-overs.
   Trevolin waited outside at his car until his guests arrived. Charles de Mirelle had brought a contact from the Heritage Ministry for a free afternoon out - someone to advise Trevolin on ways to upgrade the building invisibly so that it would have essential, modern facilities while retaining the original character.
   De Mirelle seemed to have an intimate knowledge of the house and he was quite happy to don a security tag, which would identify him to Frank Harrison or the Torrence family, and wander off with the 'heritage advisor' - a well-spoken, serious-faced, middle-aged man called Armand Vir. De Mirelle knew the film-makers, of course, and he would be joining them later on to advise them on what they could be allowed to get away with inside the house and in the grounds.
   Trevolin had waved goodbye to the cargo terminal deal by now. He knew that if de Mirelle suspected that he planned to demolish the family pile, he would join Charles' accident list right away. He had taken the fun and games with his bank account as a sign that dark forces were, indeed, working behind the scenes. He was just wondering if any of the refurbishment work would actually get done before the gang of conspirators pounce on him, when his other party of guests arrived.
   Chief Inspector Hébert had learned of the reception through his own devious sources. He had invited himself and his wife over for a free afternoon out. It was a toss-up whom he feared most, but Trevolin had decided to give the Héberts a quick tour of the paintings while de Mirelle was looking around the house.
   Cécile Hébert, Trevolin learned, was a commercial artist, who worked mainly as a book illustrator. Trevolin found her surprisingly attractive and intelligent; surprising in that he had expected anyone married to Chief Inspector Hébert would be a dragon with a heart of stone. He couldn't think what she saw in her husband. Clearly, Hébert had hidden depths.
   Most of the paintings in the house were copies for security reasons, the originals languishing in a dark bank vault. Cécile Hébert seemed to think that the copies were good enough to warrant her close inspection. Trevolin discovered that she had worked in advertising but she had never liked all the rush, rush, rush to meet arbitrary deadlines and the scrapping of perfectly good work in favour of something no better.
   Her change of direction had followed an unscheduled career break. She had suffered a lengthy episode of influenza then, in her first week back on the job, she had tripped over an obstruction while trying to carry too much, following her similarly overloaded boss, and broken her ankle.
   She had taken over-generous voluntary redundancy terms as a means of getting some money out of her employer. She had been out of work for several months until she had found free-lance work that could be done by post or delivered by a friend. Her part-time work had developed into virtually a full-time job for a publisher. Cécile had decided never, ever to go back to advertising.
   Trevolin directed her attention to one of the few original pictures: Man Pursued By Daemons, a curiously stark creation that an obscure English Anti-Raphaelite had painted in 1852. The picture was one of Trevolin's favourites because he could relate to a poor sod getting his arse slashed by claws and his leg bitten off by a pursuing thing with huge and plentiful fangs. Cécile seemed to find it an enormously funny pastiche. While she was engrossed, Trevolin took the opportunity to show her husband an A5 size, laser-printed directory, which de Mirelle had given to him. Someone with a lot of soft fonts and not much design sense had gone to town on the booklet.
   "These are all people he reckons I could use for doing refurbishment work," Trevolin said, keeping his voice low. "Is this something you'd want to check out? Seeing you told me you wanted to know M. de Mirelle's every move."
   "Doubt it." Hébert shook his head. "These are just ordinary working Joes, not players in de Mirelle's league. But I bet you everyone on his list is paying him commission for being on it."
   "You reckon?"
   "Expensive business, being one of the Arts Mafia. The cash has to come from somewhere. Like consultancies, and so on."
   "Still, I suppose it's fair enough if he's getting them work. And he declares it on his tax return."
   "Let's see how fair you think it is when he asks for your contribution," grinned the chief inspector.
   "I hadn't thought of that."
   "Well, you won't look surprised when he springs it on you, will you? Now you know," laughed Hébert.
   Trevolin began to weave a new conspiracy theory as the two men followed Mme. Hébert along the gallery. He wondered if de Mirelle would arrange for the conspirators to be blocked only until Trevolin had received advances on refurbishment grants and Charles had received his commission. In a rush of fairness, he admitted that things wouldn't work out like that.
   De Mirelle seemed very committed to his cause, and yet his keenness was understandable if he was making serious money out of the heritage business. It made sense to ensure that the wreckers were not allowed to destroy profitable relics.

Seeing the Montespan estate pass into the control of Georges Trevolin had simplified Charles de Mirelle's plan to preserve it from commercial vandals. If the estate was in the control of one vulnerable individual, rather than at the changeable mercy of a government department, much less effort was required to achieve desirable changes of direction and the pushes could be applied less subtly.
   De Mirelle had decided that it was time for a surgical strike at the heart of the conspiracy against Trevolin's ownership of the estate. Abrupt, non-accidental departures from life would warn the survivors to be on their guard. De Mirelle preferred to let a conspiracy collapse from apparently natural causes. Apart from two unfortunate lapses; the shambles around MP Guy Malard's termination had been one; he had been able to arrange a convincing 'accident' for a total of eleven deserving vandals, who had sought to destroy national treasures.
   The logical continuation point now was Gerard Demineaux. He was the main facilitator of the conspiracy. Without his direction and influence, the others would have to spend some considerable time regrouping before they could advance again. The conspiracy could even collapse right after Demineaux's death, leaving the others looking for something else to yield a quicker profit and sparing de Mirelle the trouble of doing away with more of them. He did not expect the conspirators to be committed to the scheme as a matter of principle; not when they were just a gang of unprincipled rogues.
   Demineaux lived in a block of service apartments with his wife and two sons. De Mirelle had never visited his apartment but he knew exactly where it was and he had inspected apartments on the same floor to learn the standard lay-out. He also knew how to move around inside the building via the lifts and stairs used by the cleaners and other maintenance staff.
   The building had notional security in that members of the public could not just walk in off the street. At the same time, the tenants wanted privacy over their own comings and goings as well as those of their guests. Access at the front was gained via a swipe card or by standing in front of a video camera and contacting one of the other tenants. Entry at the rear required a swipe card and a five-digit number to tap out on a keypad. Charles de Mirelle had the experience and the resources to obtain both the swipe card and the code for any particular day.
   He had decided that Sunday would be a good day to strike. Demineaux generally stayed at home, enjoying the peace and quiet. His wife went to church and then to a long lunch with friends. His two sons were football fanatics. His solitary Sundays were a time for Demineaux to enjoy his opera CDs without scornful comments from his boys.
   Observation from a neighbouring building had told de Mirelle that the ringleader of the cabal spent a long time in the bathroom as part of his Sunday routine. This suggested the scenario of 'Man found dead in his bathroom after apparently slipping while using a mobile phone, hitting his head and drowning in a filling bath.'
   De Mirelle normally went to a killing zone with a well-defined plan to follow but he had learned that human beings are not the most reliable of creatures. He would have several variations available for various contingencies, and he was a master of improvisation, but the preferred scheme would make Demineaux the butt of a string of tedious, clean-end jokes.
   How terrible it must be to drown in a sea of bathroom jokes, de Mirelle thought as he made the final preparations. And how unsatisfying for a man who abused a position of trust to have ridicule as his epitaph rather than exposure.

When he wondered about someone who would be in touch with the toiling masses, Trevolin's thoughts turned naturally to Robert Fernand. Sunday morning was usually a good time to find him at home: preferably late on Sunday morning because the Fernands always made their Saturday nights last until well into the small hours of the next morning. What he needed, Trevolin had realized, was a gang of odd-job-men to do basic work. Any rewiring, for instance, involved just threading cables through previously installed ducting. Trevolin was not inclined to pay a craftsman's wages for such straightforward work.
   Both Camille and Robert Fernand were looking less than alert when Camille let Trevolin into their apartment but they seemed to be awake and free of hangovers. As the cake shop was closed on a Sunday, Trevolin had brought a packet of fancy biscuits as his offering.
   "Is this you playing the capitalist exploiter, Georges?" Robert Fernand remarked when the visitor had been provided with a mug of coffee and he had explained the purpose of his visit, taking care to present himself in the role of middle-man rather than customer.
   "This is me playing the bloke who's offering the dignity of labour to people who might need it," Trevolin countered. "I could do it all officially and get a notice put up where your comrades, the former toiling masses, go to claim their miserable bit of unemployment benefit...
   "...but you thought it might be quicker and cheaper to come to me? Avoiding bureaucracy and commissions?"
   "Well, you're always telling me how many people you know who've been stabbed in the back. Decent, honest people who've been exploited by the system and never get a turn at the trough."
   "Please! You'll have us in tears in a minute, Georges," mocked Camille.
   "I'm just giving your rotten husband a chance to score a few positive points," grinned Trevolin. "Do some real good for people; and repair some of the damage to his image caused by being released so quickly after getting himself arrested."
   "That was quite fun while it lasted," grinned Robert. "Okay, I can think of a few people who could use a temporary job."
   "Yeah, well, think on," said Trevolin. "There's going to be a building inspector calling round unexpectedly to view work in progress, so I don't want strike-happy Communist layabouts on the job. I wants men who can be relied on to do the job right without taking about three times as long as they should."
   "The working class can take just as much pride in their work as any bloated capitalist exploiter, Comrade," Robert said. "And they can be trusted to do a good job as long as they get proper respect and a decent rate of pay."
   "And no late payment?" Trevolin said with a grin. "Has that run its course now?"
   "Just about," nodded Camille. "The trick is to run short, intense campaigns then switch before people get bored. The next one will be all the more effective because people will remember what happened to the exploiters this time round."
   "Like magistrates getting the sack and the Air Liberation Front running riot?" said Trevolin.
   "Happy days," smiled Robert. "Do I get any commission for making the phone calls to round up your work-force?"
   "You're not going to do it for the warm glow of satisfaction that helping your comrades will give you?"
   "Warm glows don't pay the phone bill, Comrade."
   "How about a discount off a colour printer for your home computer?"
   "Colour?" said Camille. "Yes, that sounds great, Georges."
   "Oh, no! Someone mentioned the C-word," groaned Robert. "I'll go and make some phone calls."
   Robert Fernand retired to the bedroom while his wife began to pump Trevolin for details of his printers. She was the computer expert in their household. Robert was a certified technical incompetent with anything more advanced than a manual typewriter.
   Trevolin helped himself to another fancy biscuit while Camille was wondering whether to put her new thermal sublimation printer in the place occupied by her black-only ink-jet, or whether it might be more conveniently placed on the left of the computer. When Robert had finished making his calls, Trevolin knew, the three of them would be off to his warehouse so that Camille could get the printer connected and in operation as soon as possible. He could tell that she was planning a whole series of jobs to try it out.
   "A new campaign, Georges," she explained. "And I think it could do with printing a bit more classy than we can manage with plain black on white or coloured paper."
   "So who's catching it in the neck now?" laughed Trevolin.
   "We want to get in touch with anyone who's been inconvenienced, suffered damage to a business or been ripped off by an allegedly high-flying businessman. Someone's who's full of bullshit and buzz-words."
   "I know someone just like that. And the bastard's a late-payer, too."
   "In that case, you should write in and tell us about your experience. We're hoping a collection of letters from real people will help others make personal and business decisions. Such as whether it's wise to give people like that credit or even work with them."
   "Some people don't have the choice."
   "True. But plenty do. Our file of complaints won't be at all comprehensive, but we see it as forming a handy negative reference volume."
   "Sort of, if your business prospect isn't in it, you can be a bit more confident she or he is okay?" Trevolin was careful to put ladies first in Camille's presence.
   "It's a start, yes," nodded Camille. "And naturally, if anyone feels a complaint is unjustified, they'll be allowed to give their side of things in the interests of balance."
   "Except the scales will be tipped a long way against them?"
   "The opposite of real life, yes. Well, these people don't deserve to have it their own way all the time."
   "I'll come and visit you in gaol after some powerful bastard has you locked up for defamation."
   "Oh, we've got a good lawyer on our side," said Camille.
   "And we seek only to provide information that will help people to make judgements," said her husband as he rejoined them. "Not to be a judicial instrument."
   "We seek only to cause the maximum amount of trouble for the most people," Trevolin countered cynically.
   "So anyway, this printer," Camille added, "does it come with a good supply of the coloured film ribbons?"
   "More than you can shake a stick at." Trevolin coped admirably with the change of course, drawing on his many experiences at the hands of Chief Inspector Hébert. "Right, let's head for the warehouse."

Georges Trevolin made a very early start to his Monday morning to be sure of reaching the estate before the workers arrive. He had taken the precaution of warning the Torrence family the day before to avoid unfortunate incidents. Old Raoul and his brood were very intolerant of uninvited strangers.
   The six men arrived in two ancient cars. They were all over forty-five and looked like men who had been made redundant and had little prospect of finding permanent employment again. They seemed resigned to doing contract work when they could find it. Trevolin realized that this kind of worker would do a good job because they relied on a system of recommendations. The men were also eager for job opportunities because a wage packet meant a dramatic improvement to their circumstances.
   Trevolin wrote down on his clipboard names and trades. Then he handed out lists of tasks to the appropriate people and sent them away to look at the jobs and estimate what was needed in the way of materials. It seemed likely that his select workforce could also put him in touch with others in the same position, whom Fernand might not know, who could do all the rough work so that skilled craftsmen recommended by de Mirelle could make their contribution from a sound base.
   Electricians, building workers, plumbers, heating engineers; he could see a vast army of people making money out of him, leaving poor old Georges stuck in the middle, still scrambling for cash to pay them all. His plight was relieved somewhat by his connection to Charles de Mirelle, who had a comprehensive knowledge of the grants available to those who fostered the nation's heritage, but his scrambling days were not over yet.
   He was also plugged in to the film-business network as both a supplier and a location provider. And if it the balancing act ever came too much for him, he could console himself with the thought that the 'blessed relief' of having the estate grabbed off him by the conspirators lay just around the corner.

A middle-aged German couple on holiday in Versailles found Albert Piraud's car on Tuesday morning. They were out walking on a fine day, exploring country lanes. They had been somewhat indignant to see the car parked carelessly just off the road. It was not until they drew level with it that they saw that the vehicle had driven into a tree and there was a figure slumped over the steering wheel.
   The husband used his mobile phone to summon the police when they realized that the driver was dead. Then they had the thrill of being caught up in a murder inquiry; until after a post mortem examination at the end of the afternoon. Piraud had died a natural death. He had suffered a stroke sometime on Sunday afternoon. Feeling ill, or unconscious, he had drifted off the road and crashed at slow speed into a tree.

Georges Trevolin had decided to hold his pre-sale viewing day on Wednesday and the sale itself on Friday. He had been worrying about the building inspector making his unannounced visit while he was away from the estate but he had received a call on his mobile phone at Tuesday lunchtime. Charles de Mirelle had contacts who could take the uncertainty out of any inspector's surprises.
   Secure in the knowledge that the work was being done to official satisfaction, Trevolin had turned the supervisor's job over to Raoul Torrence so that he could concentrate on making some money. Not that he was feeling the pinch: his commission on the sale of the Russian jeeps and the pistols had left him feeling quite well off, and the Credit & Commerce Bank had not yet asked for the return of the money that had reappeared so mysteriously in his account.
   Chief Inspector Hébert's arrival, as Trevolin was having breakfast at the café opposite his warehouse, seemed inevitable. Hébert had brought along a collection of photographs to see if Trevolin recognized anyone in them. It took Trevolin a while to work out that they showed various people with Ron Arnoux's sister. He had seen Mme. Marina Evremond only once, at the reception, and he failed to recognize her at first. When he admitted that he knew none of the others, Hébert put on a patient look that told Trevolin that he was a waste of space.
   "Just have another look through them. Take your time. I've got a call to make," Hébert told him when Trevolin reached the last photograph. The chief inspector headed into the café to use the land-line telephone.
   "Well, why not? I mean, I've got bugger all else to do today," Trevolin muttered when Hébert was out of earshot.
   "Hello, Georges, how are you doing?"
   A stranger slid onto one of the chairs at his table. Trevolin took a moment to realize that Val Sanjac had dropped into his life again.
   "Hello, Val, struggling on. How are you?"
   "Much the same. Are you having another sale?"
   "Getting ready for one. Are you having some coffee?"
   "Yes, please. I could do with one."
   Val smiled as Trevolin waved a summons to the waiter. She had been reluctant to get involved with Trevolin again but Emil Lestamp had been very insistent and her boss at the agency had been very reluctant to turn down a healthy fee.
   Some casual questioning and devious slanting of their conversation brought her the news that Trevolin had received a Dear Georges letter from his girlfriend Marie and he had not seen her since she had left on the current filming job. Val offered routine sympathy but she felt a sense of relief. It was clear that, whatever else he was involved in, Trevolin was not conspiring with Marie Souverain to pirate Emil Lestamp's porn movies, which meant that Val could deliver a speedy negative report.
   She was starting to feel quite relaxed, and taking an interest in the photographs, when a bulky, grim-faced man joined them, which explained the spare cup. He noticed at once that Val was looking at his pictures.
   "Anyone you recognize?" Hébert remarked.
   Val shrugged.
   "Just to make sure your memory's in top form..." Hébert took out his ID card and showed it to Val without letting the other customers see it. "Have a good look at them. Particularly this one? Bearing in mind I know where you were enjoying yourself last Wednesday night."
   "This is Marina Evremond," Val said reluctantly, wondering why the chief inspector had been at a film industry reception.
   "Good. And the young lady talking to her is..?"
   "I think she's calling herself Kitty Farges."
   "And?" prompted Hébert.
   "And what?"
   "And what does she do for a living?"
   "She's an industrial spy."
   "And what does Mme Evremond want with an industrial spy? They're not just chatting about the weather here."
   "A good question," said Val.
   "Maybe you'd like to come to my office while you think up a good answer," Hébert said with a grim smile.
   Val looked at him for a moment, deciding that he was quite capable of wasting the rest of her day. "She may be passing information to Bertrand Chifre, M. Evremond's uncle, through Mme. Evremond."
   "I suppose you know her father is Giles Arnoux, the chairman of a company called Tractage Rapide? And Farges was working there as a cleaner until she was identified."
   "So your reckon Mlle. Farges is getting secret commercial information about Tractage Rapide for this Chifre character?"
   Val shrugged.
   "Hmm! Interesting," said Hébert. "Anyone else you know?"
   Val finished her coffee while she flicked through the rest of the photographs. None of her identifications seemed of much interest to Hébert. When she had finished with the pictures, Hébert let her make her escape. Val left the café at a brisk walk, heading back to her car. Her report on Georges Trevolin would be negative. He was not pirating porn movies and he seemed to be working with a cop on the Anti-Corruption Squad. Whatever he was involved in, he was a dead end as far as Valerie Sanjac was concerned.
   "So, what's this Chifre character up to," Hébert mused, not expecting an answer. But he got one.
   "Remember those people from CJN who were at the estate on Saturday?" said Trevolin. "The younger one, Paretique, I think he made a bit of a pig of himself with the free hospitality. It loosened his tongue a bit. Anyway, he mentioned a rumour of some sort of management buy-out being planned at TR. Possibly forcing out Giles Arnoux and his son Ron."
   "Interesting," said Hébert. "I've heard the daughter isn't on particularly good terms with the rest of the Arnouxs. I wonder if she's plotting some sort of double-cross with her uncle-in-law? Carving the rest of her family up a bit. What do you reckon?"
   Trevolin shrugged. "I'm not that well in with them."
   "Mind you, other people say Marina's not on particularly bad terms with her Dad. But you can never tell with families."
   "Right, now we've sorted that out, can I get on with my preview?"
   "Yeah, right," nodded Hébert, running through possibilities in his mind.
   Hébert packed away the photographs and headed back to his car, leaving Trevolin to settle the bill for his own breakfast and the extra cups of coffee. The chief inspector knew the name Chifre but Val Sanjac's information failed to fit in to his current main investigation; the one that was supposed to be on hold because Hébert's boss had a case of political cold feet. Some digging and some deep thinking was indicated.

An hour later, Hébert was no longer so sure that Bertrand Chifre was part of the grand conspiracy that surrounded Guy Malard and the others. It was true that Chifre was a major supplier of building materials, and he would make millions if he was in on the construction of a new air-freight terminal, but Hébert had to admit that he was being seduced by coincidence.
   It was equally likely that Chifre was just involved in a spot of family skull-duggery and interested only in making money out of TR shares. Hébert knew that it was easy to see brilliant but fantastical schemes to make dirty money in completely random events: as easy as it is to miss the vital elements of real plots. If he didn't watch his step, he told himself, he was in danger of turning into a conspiracy merchant like Inspector Wonder Cop Grollier.

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Created for Romiley Literary Circle by HTSP Web Division, 10/12 SK6 4EG, Romiley, UK.
The original story 1996, AriDorn Enterprises. This version AriDorn Enterprises, 2003