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a novel by nicholas sheridan stanton
Hwy D42, Marseilles, France…Sunday, August 28th, 2005…6am
As the crow flies Monte Carlo to Marseilles is roughly 100 miles, give or take. But the winding roads linking all of the small hamlets, tiny villages, and big resort towns seem to almost double that figure easily. That's a helluva long time to be trapped in a car with that chatty Cathy, Sandy Lucci. It made you wish for a cone of silence ala Maxwell Smart! At the moment Roman was wishing that the freaking Euro's had embraced the fast food craze a little more than they did. There wasn't a McDonalds anywhere to found on this trip. He kept looking just the same. The sooner he found a drive-thru and filled Sandy's mouth with cheeseburgers to shut him up the better! Roman glanced at François in the back seat, envying his luxury of sleeping through Sandy's nonstop chatter. The lucky bastard wasn't stuck with keeping the mouth that roared company!
The sunrise was just beginning and it was a spectacular sight. Roman had not travelled much outside of California except for his tour of duty in Southeast Asia and an occasional welding gig when he was working with Sandy and Pat. He opened his window to keep himself from dozing off. The chilled air worked its magic instantly. He heard François groaning a protest from the back seat and a wicked grin spread across his face. Fuck him! This was pay back for abandoning him during the night, leaving him to deal with Mouth-zilla all by his lonesome! Unfortunately Roman's sweet revenge was cut short as the cold air seemed to have the opposite effect on Sandy, reviving him. The rat bastard beat on his chest like an ape, inhaling the crisp cold air deeply into his lungs.
"OH MAN! Feel that fresh air. Thanks dude! You know I was getting kinda sleepy there for a minute. You've had that goddamn heater on the whole trip for Pat's old man," exclaimed Sandy, stabbing at the air behind him with a thumb over his shoulder.
Roman rolled his eyes and shook his head slowly. He was angry that he'd spoiled an opportunity for a little peace and quite. He scolded himself under his breath, "mother fuc…," when Sandy suddenly cut him off with a familiar whine.
"Dude, see if you can find a Euro-Coco's or something around here man, maybe we can grab some chow before we get to the marina," he said, looking out all of the windows at once as he scouted the area for a diner.
"I hope you're happy," murmured François from under the cozy cocoon he'd assembled from all of the coats and jackets they'd tossed in the back of the Audi.
"Can it Frenchie, I don't need crap from you too," quipped Roman.
"Alright, but take the next exit and you'll find something that will pass for an American meal for our insatiable friend riding shotgun," François replied from under his warm retreat.
"How would you know man? You've been squirreled away under those coats all night," Roman lamented, dismissing François' suggestion.
"I peeked out the window while you were rolling your eyes. Trust me, take the next exit and you'll run right into the Ibis Marseille Hotel. It's not five star but the restaurant has a large selection of Yankee style favorites including pancakes and waffles, Sandy will love it," replied François.
"Listen to the man home-boy! Let's eat, I'm starving!" chimed in Sandy.
"You're alright Frenchie, I don't care what Roman says about you," he added, patting Roman's shoulder as he settled back into his seat. François sat up and stretched. Rubbing at his eyes he looked out the windows on either side of the Audi and got his bearings. "Take the Alexandre Fleming exit ahead and follow it to the Ibis Hotel," he said yawning.
"Okay, I see the exit, but I don't see no hotel? You said I'd run right into it," Roman said looking past Sandy and out the passenger window.
"Just follow Fleming around and it will turn into François Duparc. The Ibis is on Sakatini. If you get to St. Pierre you went too far," explained François.
"Clear as mud," replied Roman sarcastically as he took the av. Alexandre Fleming exit.
"Don't worry my friend, I will get us there. This is where I grew up, these are my streets," chuckled François.
"Alright Frenchie, you have the con," said Sandy gleefully, grateful that they'd be stopping soon to put on the old feedbag.
A few moments later they were pulling into the drive of the large, square, unimpressive three star hotel. Sandy hopped out before Roman killed the engine and jogged toward the entrance, his warm breath leaving a foggy trail behind him as he put some distance between he and the others. Sandy Lucci wasn't picky when it came to meals. The whole star rating system was wasted on him. As long as the food was hot, the coffee black, the beer cold, and the waitresses young and curvaceous, he was a happy camper. This place would be lucky to bat .500 on the Lucci scorecard, and at this time of the morning hot cakes and coffee would be his preference over suds and sex.
François and Roman entered the lobby a moment after Sandy. A rather round and perturbed looking gentleman behind the desk rolled his eyes toward a hall leading to the dining area where a bellhop was busy cleaning a spill. It looked like someone had run over the poor guy on his way to fill a room service order. You didn't need to be a genius to figure out the culprit in that hit and run. François smiled weakly as they past the desk, picking up the pace to catch up to Sandy before the next calamity.
"HOT CAKES! Come on man, you know, pancakes, flapjacks, buttermilk, blueberry, sourdough, buckwheat, understand-a-vu, HOT CAKES!" Sandy bellowed at a tiny waiter who looked to be about a hundred and ten. What a jerk François thought as he came to the poor fellow's rescue.
"Pardonnez s'il vous plaît à mon ami, il est surmené intellectuellement malade," he said, asking for forgiveness for his mentally ill friend.
"Bien sûr, mais est il dangereux," replied the frightened waiter, forgiving him and asking if Sandy was dangerous.
"Pas si vous le nourrissez vite," replied François with a smile, assuring him that he was not, as long as he was fed quickly.
The little man laughed weakly, excusing himself to process Sandy's order, running off to the kitchen as fast as his little legs would carry him. François turned to give Sandy a piece of his mind only to discover that he'd already wandered over to the buffet table to poor himself a cup of coffee and grab a couple of scones to tide him over until his meal arrived. François decided to leave well enough alone and joined him at the coffee carafe to do likewise. They joined Roman at a booth near a window with a view of the parking lot. He was busy adding an ungodly amount of sugar and cream to his coffee.
"Man, this is the smallest coffee mug I've ever seen. And this coffee tastes like sludge!" Roman lamented, making a sour face.
"Its espresso my friend, it's supposed to taste like that. Nice and strong," explained François.
"For reals? Madre mia, I don't think I'm gonna France so much," Roman replied, emptying five small espresso cups into a soup bowl and adding more milk and sugar.
François shook his head and muttered "païen," referring to his confused compatriot as a heathen. As he sipped at his own drink his cell phone began to vibrate in his pocket. Setting down his cup he stood to retrieve the squawking contraption from his pants pocket and answer it. Who would be calling so early he wondered? The led display answered his question as Jackson Peck's name was displayed in dark black letters against a soft blue background. François' felt tightness in his chest as he answered the phone, he had a bad feeling.
"Hello Mr. Bouchard, it's me Jack. I hope I didn't wake you?"
"No we have only just arrived in Marseilles. We are having breakfast at the Ibis Hotel right now. Are you nearby?"
"Yeah, I arrived last night by charter. I've been trying to reach Randy but no joy. Has he called you?"
François frowned and walked away form the table and out into the lobby to continue the conversation without the commotion of a busy restaurant and out of earshot of Sandy and Roman. "He hasn't called, but he wasn't to arrive here until tomorrow anyway. That was the plan. We would get to the docks today and the two of you would follow in a day or two. What are you worried about anyway, what aren't you telling me?"
"It's probably nothing, Randy was supposed to check in when he arrived in Madrid and that was hours ago. I tried his cell and no answer. He may just be over cautious since his encounter with Mr. Price and his minions. I told him to run silent if he thought he was being followed. Still, you were and then Pat were the contingency plans and neither of you have heard from him."
"You spoke with my son?"
"Yes, I called him after you didn't pick up last night."
"You called me last night?"
"Yeah, around midnight, it just rang, never went to voice mail."
"I must have disabled the damn thing somehow. These machines are just too bloody sophisticated for my generation!"
"I'm hip. Anyway, Pat said we go with or without him."
"That doesn't sound right, are you sure he was clear about that?"
François didn't like how quickly Jack answered his question. He was lying, Pat was not that reckless. Still, confronting him now could be trouble for them all so he played along for the time being. He'd caution the others once they got to the docks. Right now he wanted to concentrate on Randy, the boy had to be somewhere between Madrid and Marseilles. He was supposed be travelling by rail, but if he felt threatened he may have changed up and switched to a bus or an automobile. At any rate he had three days to make a one day trip. The prudent thing for them to do was to wait and see. But suddenly François had a notion. He recalled what Giselle, Patrick's mother used to tell their son when he was a boy and they were out shopping in the mall together, "if we get separated stay where you are, I will find you."
"Jack, when was the last time you saw Randy?"
"In Paris, I watched him board his flight to Spain before I caught my charter, why?"
"You saw him board?"
"Yes, why? What are you thinking?"
"I think Randy is still in Madrid. He's doing what any frightened and smart kid would do. He's staying put and waiting for someone to come find him. That's what I think," François replied.
"You sound pretty sure of yourself."
"I am. The question is where is he waiting?"
"You already answered that Franco, he's at the airport."
"What is the airport in Madrid? We will go and fetch him," François said.
"He's not in Madrid, he's still in Paris, at the Charles De Gaulle airport," replied Jack chuckling.
"But you said you saw him board?"
"I did, but that doesn't mean stayed on board."
"How can you be sure?"
"Because I know how Mr. Price thinks and because I know my father. If Randy had been picked up in Madrid I'd have received a cryptic hint of some kind. My father loves to gloat and play games. He knows that we know he's on to us. It's a cat and mouse game for him now and we are the meal he is playing with. No, Randy's smart, he did the right thing. He stayed put and kept me in the dark about it, clever boy. I'll fly back a fetch him myself," Jack explained.
François could hear the wheels turning in Jack's head in the pregnant pause before he spoke again. He feared for Randy even more now than before. The tone of Jack's voice was cold and calculating, and it gave François the heebie-jeebies. He thought about calling Randy to warn him but he knew that Randy had already tossed the cell as part of the protocol they had set up in Monte Carlo. The same protocol kept him from calling his son as well. Sticking with the plan was the only course of action. The troubling part was that Jack knew the plan as well. In order to stay the course, he would have to trust the devil, there was no other choice. Randy's fate was in the hands of a random element. François fought the urge to deviate, and forced himself to remain disciplined.
"Very well, we'll see you on the dock in two days, as scheduled," he said as normally as possible so as not to give Jack any indication that he was abnormally concerned.
"Right, see you on Monday or Tuesday. If it's safe I'll text you with the all's clear code after I find our little lost lamb," Jack replied.
"Alright, I'll keep an eye out for it," François answered as their call was disconnected.
François frowned as he put the cell phone back into his pants pocket. Jack's code for "all's clear" was 666...