Authors: AD Starrling
e left the apartment and
took the stairs to the ground floor. A row of letterboxes flanked the wall just inside the front doors of the building. There was mail inside H.E. Strauss’s box.
It was past one in the morning when we returned to Gustav’s place. I switched on a table lamp in the drawing room and we went through the handful of letters we had collected from the
. They were all addressed to
Hubert Eric Strauss. Most of them were bills. There were a scattering of invitations to forthcoming international symposiums and conferences on molecular genetics.
Something slipped out from the pile of correspondence and fell on the floor. I picked up a small, rectangular board.
It was a postcard from Italy. Dated twelve days ago, it depicted the Faraglioni rock formations off the Amalfi coast and was signed “
”. The message read
See you soon
in neat, feminine writing.
‘No phone calls have been made from Strauss’s apartment in the last month,’ said Reid, studying one of the bills. ‘Before that, there were twelve calls made to the same number in the space of a week.’
I studied the figures that preceded the telephone number. ‘That’s a Swiss dialing code.’
One of the letters was from Strauss’s bank. It confirmed that a sum of 100,000 Euros had been transferred to an account in Zurich, as per the professor’s instructions. The transaction had taken place four weeks ago.
Reid raised an eyebrow. ‘Does this mean he’s in Switzerland?’
‘I don’t know.’ I took out the key we had found in Strauss’s apartment and studied it thoughtfully. Judging from the bullet hole and the blood, the professor was in more than a little trouble. I had been hoping to find some answers in Paris. Instead, I only had more questions. ‘I think we should take a look at the Gif-sur-Yvette campus tomorrow.’
Having decided it would be best to leave Paris before Sunday traffic clogged up the arteries of the city, we caught a few hours’ sleep and were up again at dawn.
‘Are you sure you can’t stay longer?’ Gustav asked while he cleared the breakfast table. The Frenchman looked despondent at the news of our early departure.
‘I’m afraid not,’ I replied with an apologetic smile. ‘The trail will get cold if we leave it any longer.’
We bade goodbye to the retired detective and left the
shortly before eight. I drove west across the River Seine and soon joined the N118 highway. Twenty minutes later, I pulled up outside a 24-hour cafe with internet facilities. I searched for maps of the CNRS campus while Reid looked up the NCIC database and Interpol’s website.
‘Well, you haven’t made the wanted lists yet,’ he muttered after a while.
‘Glad to hear it,’ I said.
Located in the Science Valley of the Yvette River some twenty miles south-west of the French capital, at the gateway to the
Parc de la Vallée de Chevreuse
, the town of Gif-sur-Yvette was home not only to the
Centre Nationale de la Recherche Scientifique
but also the
Commissariat à l’Énergie Atomique, Supélec, L’École Supérieure d’Électricité
Laboratoire de Génie Électrique de Paris
Centre Nationale d’Études
; and the
Academy. The CNRS campus was on a one-hundred-and-sixty-acre estate located within the boundaries of the town itself. At nine in the morning, the grounds were practically deserted.
I parked the car under a row of trees and we crossed a lawn toward a four-story edifice that housed the laboratories of the CGM. It took a couple of minutes to override the security system at the rear of the building. Once inside, we found an administration office on the ground floor. A staff board on the wall indicated that Strauss worked in a laboratory two levels up. We took the stairs and soon entered a corridor tiled in white and smelling strongly of antiseptic.
‘This kinda reminds me of a hospital,’ said Reid as we walked down the cool, clinical hallway.
‘Uh-huh,’ I said, glancing at the names on the doors.
‘I hate hospitals.’
‘Sure,’ I murmured.
‘Why do I get the feeling you’re not really listening to me?’
We turned into a side passage. A door bearing a nameplate engraved with the words “Prof. H.E. Strauss” stood at the end.
A lab lay beyond it. Bar the complex machines that crowded the cluttered worktops and the humming fridge cabinets lining the walls, it was empty. A dry whiteboard filled most of the back wall; it was covered with complicated numbers, diagrams, and equations joined by interlinking arrows and question marks. Next to the board, a second door opened onto a small office.
Paper overflowed from the in-tray on the desk. There was a print of Gustav Klimt’s “The Kiss” on the wall, with a year planner overrun with memos hanging lopsidedly to the right of it. An empty picture frame rested next to a cactus plant on the windowsill.
A search of the drawers and filing cabinets produced nothing useful; there was no mention of CNRS 129 anywhere. Loose wires on the floor and a faded rectangular area on the desk indicated Strauss had had a computer in the office.
‘This key has got to be for something here,’ I said, staring around the room.
‘Well, whatever it is, it ain’t in this place,’ Reid retorted with a shrug.
We left the lab and explored the rest of the building. A corridor on the ground floor led us to a staff changing room filled with rows of lockers. My steps quickened as I strode along the aisles, eyes scanning the closets for the number 129.
I found it halfway down the third row. The door hung loosely from its hinges. It was glaringly empty.
Reid stopped beside me. ‘Looks like someone beat us to it.’
I frowned. Something about the door did not look quite right. I traced the metal numbers with a finger.
‘What is it?’ said Reid.
I studied the faint, fresh marks in the heads of the screws that secured the middle number with rising excitement. ‘This isn’t the right one.’
We found locker 139 in the next aisle.
I tried the key, my heart thumping in my chest. The lock opened with a faint click. ‘He swapped the numbers around.’ I opened the door and reached for the slim, brown package taped to the roof of the locker.
‘Smart guy,’ Reid said with a grunt. ‘He must have known they were after him.’
The envelope contained a memory stick and a journal. There was an inscription on the inside page of the diary.
Hope this brings you inspiration
”, signed “
”,’ I quoted.
‘This the same “
” from the postcard?’ said Reid.
‘Handwriting looks the same.’
The first entry in the journal was dated two years previously. I leafed through the well-thumbed pages.
The diary was a chronicle of Hubert Strauss’s work over a period of twenty months. It also seemed to be a reflection of the scientist’s state of mind and life during that time; numerous red-inked annotations and diagrams crowded the margins, with memos, letters, and email printouts stuck randomly between the sheets.
A metallic clink sounded outside the door of the locker room. It opened a second later. The sound of shuffling feet and the squeak of wheels followed. Someone started to whistle under their breath.
I motioned Reid around the aisle. We circled the room until we reached the open doorway and saw a janitor mopping the floor to the right, his back to us. We left silently and exited the building through the rear door.
In the hour since we had arrived at the campus, the place had come to life. Peals of laughter and the chatter of conversation rose toward the blue skies; a group of students had laid picnic baskets under some elm trees and were making the most of the autumn sun.
We turned and headed for the car. It took a few seconds to detect the men tracking us.
‘I make four,’ I said in a low voice, hands hanging loosely at my sides. I could feel the weight of the guns under my coat.
We were still some hundred and fifty feet from the roadster.
‘There’s a fifth guy behind the oak tree up on the left,’ Reid observed casually.
Tension hummed through my limbs. I kept my expression neutral. ‘They must have been watching Strauss’s office.’
‘How do you wanna play this?’ said Reid.
I shrugged. ‘Divide and conquer is always a good plan.’
His shoulders stiffened. ‘On the count of three?’
We parted ways seconds later and headed briskly in opposite directions.
The Crovir Hunters’ bullets cracked through the air close on our heels. We turned and exchanged fire.
Shouts of surprise and alarm rose from the bewildered students. More gunshots echoed under the trees. Panic gripped the campus.
By the time the screams started, Reid and I were racing toward the car.
I skidded behind a tree and stood rock still while rounds thudded into the other side of the trunk. Reid sank to his heels in the lee of a van to my left.
‘Cover me!’ I shouted.
He nodded, dropped to one knee, and let out a volley of shots.
I bolted for the Jaguar. Bullets peppered the ground behind me, splatters of soil striking the back of my legs. I leapt over a low crash barrier, landed on my feet, and kept running. A figure appeared to the right. I raised my gun and squeezed the trigger, still sprinting toward the roadster.
I was about twelve feet from the vehicle when a whistling noise suddenly rose behind me. I glanced over my shoulder.
The world exploded in a wave of bright light and deafening sound.
The blast from the rocket-propelled grenade lifted me in the air and hurled me onto the hood of the car. I felt a couple of ribs crack on impact and lay stunned for seconds, a shrill buzz roaring in my ears while I slowly blinked at the blue skies.
Reid’s voice finally made it through the noise in my head.
’ he barked.
I felt him drag me off the Jag and push me inside the car. I shook my head dazedly while he cleared the bonnet and vaulted into the passenger seat.
’ he shouted.
A spray of bullets scored the ground next to the tires. One round ricocheted off the wing mirror. I turned the key frantically in the ignition and looked out the window. Something glinted in the grass several feet away.
It was the memory stick.
‘Where the hell are you—’ Reid yelled behind me.
I was already out of the door and lunging for the silver rectangle. My fingers were inches from it when a bullet slammed into the ground next to my hand.
Reid leaned out of the passenger window and returned fire over my head while I scrambled backward into the driver’s seat. Somewhere to the right, a panicked scream was abruptly cut off.
I blinked sweat and blood from my eyes, engaged the transmission, grabbed the steering wheel, and floored the accelerator. Flames flashed up ahead a second later. I spun the car to the left.
Reid cursed as he slammed into the door.
The second explosion blasted a young tree from its roots and lifted the roadster’s rear tires several inches off the blacktop. The suspension groaned as the vehicle slammed down onto the asphalt. I shifted gear and headed toward the north exit of the campus.
Reid arched an eyebrow. ‘That was fun.’
‘They’re getting reckless. Whatever’s in there, they want it bad.’ I indicated the journal by my feet.
‘You’re probably right.’ He looked over his shoulder. ‘By the way, not that I’m rushing you or anything, but it looks like they’re closing on us.’
I glanced at the rearview mirror. There were two black SUVs on our tail.
‘Hang on,’ I said grimly.
The Jag was doing a hundred and forty kilometers per hour when we hit the road. The tires screamed as I took a sharp right, narrowly missing a caravan in the opposite lane. A horn blasted the air, followed by a litany of colorful language. Flocks of birds took off from the trees that flanked the carriageway, their wings thumping the air noisily.
The SUVs shot out onto the asphalt behind us.
Something pinged off the trunk of the roadster seconds later.
Reid frowned over his shoulder. ‘Are they shooting at us?’
I swerved around a horse trailer and looked at the wing mirror. ‘Uh-huh.’
He sighed. ‘Damn it. I hate shooting in the wind.’ He rammed another magazine into the Glock and leaned out the window.
The SUVs were forty feet behind and closing fast. Reid steadied the gun in both hands and squeezed the trigger twice. A distant bang rose behind us. ‘Gotcha!’ He grinned and slid back in the seat.
The blown-out front tire destabilized the first SUV. It spun, flipped over twice, and crashed into the guardrail with a harsh shriek of tearing metal. The second SUV swung around the wreckage with a high-pitched screech of tires. It teetered on two wheels, righted itself at the last second, and resumed its deadly pursuit.
A couple more bullets struck the trunk of the Jag. I winced.
Reid hung out of the window and emptied the Glock. ‘Can this thing go any faster?’ he said conversationally.
My eyes dropped to the speedometer. We were already doing one hundred and ninety kilometers per hour. ‘Not really.’
‘That’s a shame. They just lifted the rocket launcher out through the sunroof.’
I stared at the rearview mirror and saw the black mouth of the weapon on top of the pursuing vehicle. My knuckles whitened on the steering wheel. ‘That’s not good.’
‘No, it sure ain’t,’ retorted Reid.
My gaze shifted to the road ahead. We were coming up to a roundabout. To the right of it lay the entrance to Soleil Synchrotron, a scientific facility co-owned by the CNRS and the CEA and dedicated to advanced research on sub-atomic particle acceleration. I shifted gears and swerved sharply.
The grenade missed the roadster by a couple of feet and took out the Synchrotron signboard, a huge chunk off the grassy knoll in the middle of the junction, and part of the road beyond it. Clumps of soil rained down around us and clouded the windshield. I switched on the wipers.
Reid absent-mindedly dusted dirt off his arm. ‘At this rate, if they don’t kill us,
will.’ He looked behind. ‘So, you got any other bright ideas? ’cause these guys ain’t going anywhere fast.’