Old Bones – Douglas Preston

NIGHT HAD COME early to the City of Lights, and by 1:00 AM, with the moon obscured by thick clouds, Paris no longer lived up to its name. Even here, down by the river, it was dark and empty: too late on a weeknight for residents, too cold for tourists and the romantically inclined. Except for a pedestrian hurrying past, coat collar pulled up against the chill, and a long glass-sided boat sliding silently along the river—ghostlike and empty, dinner cruise over, headed to port—the man had the waterfront promenade to himself. Promenade was perhaps too grand a word for the walkway, paved with ancient stones, that ran along the Seine barely above water level. Still, even late at night this section of it offered a remarkable vista: the Île de la Cité directly across the water, with the dark bulk of the Louvre and the towers of Notre Dame—partly obscured by the Pont au Double—reaching toward a threatening sky. The man was seated on a narrow bench beside some wooden scaffolding erected to accommodate repairs on the ancient bridge. Behind him, a stone wall rose some twenty feet to street level, where vehicles on the Quai de Montebello could occasionally be heard as they passed along the artery south of the Seine. Every quarter mile or so, a worn stone staircase led down from this avenue to the riverfront promenade. Occasional lights, fixed high up along the retaining wall, cast narrow pools of yellow over the wet cobblestones. The light closest to the seated man had been removed due to the construction on the Pont au Double. A gendarme appeared in the distance, dressed in an oilskin coat, whistling a Joe Dassin tune as he approached. He smiled and nodded at the man, and the man nodded back as he lit a Gauloise and casually watched the policeman continue on beneath the bridge, the echoing notes of “Et si tu n’existais pas” receding. The man took a deep drag on the cigarette, then held it out and examined the burning tip. His movements were slow and fatigued. He was in his late thirties, dressed in a well-tailored wool suit.

Between his stylish Italian shoes sat a fat leather Gladstone bag, scuffed, of the sort that might be used by a busy lawyer or a private Harley Street doctor. A shiny new kick scooter leaned against the bench next to him. Nothing would have differentiated the man from countless other affluent Parisian businessmen save for his features—vague in the present darkness—which had an exotic touch difficult to place: perhaps Asiatic, perhaps Kazakh or Turkish. Now the low hum of the city was disturbed by the whir of an approaching bicycle. The man looked up as a figure appeared at the top of the nearest staircase. He was dressed in black nylon shorts and a dark cyclist’s jersey and was wearing a backpack with reflective stripes that gleamed in the headlights of a passing car. Pulling his bike up to the railing, he padlocked it, then came down the staircase and approached the man in the suit. “Ça va?” he said as he sat down on the bench. Despite the chill of the night, his riding outfit was damp with sweat. The man in the suit shrugged.

“Ça ne fait rien,” he replied, taking another drag on the cigarette. “What’s with the scooter?” the biker continued in French, shrugging off his mud-splattered backpack. “It’s for my kid.” “I didn’t know you were married.” “Who says I am?” “Serves me right for asking,” the biker said, laughing. The man in the suit flicked his cigarette into the river. “How did it go?” “A lot worse than your guy made it sound. I figured it would be some remote, empty park. Putain de merde, it was wedged right between Gare Montparnasse and the Catacombes!” The man in the suit shrugged again. “You know Paris.

” “Yeah, but it’s not exactly the kind of thing you usually see.” They stopped talking and gazed out over the river while a couple strolled by arm in arm, paying them no attention. Then the man in the suit spoke again. “But it was deserted. Right?” “Yes. I got lucky with the actual site—right up against the Rue Froidevaux wall. Any farther in, and I would have been visible from the apartment building across the street.” “Was it hard work?” “Not really, except for having to keep quiet the whole time. And yesterday’s goddamned rain. Look!” He pointed to his running shoes, which were even more soiled than the backpack.

“Quel dommage.” “Thanks a lot.” The man in the suit glanced up and down the walkway. Nobody but the two lovebirds, now dwindling into the distance. “Let’s have a look.” The other grabbed his backpack and unzipped it, revealing additional mud and something covered in layers of plastic tarp, bubble wrap, and soft chamois cloth. A nasty smell arose. The suited man took out a penlight and carefully examined what lay within. Then he gave a grunt of approval. “Well done,” he said.

“How long did it take you to bike over here?” “About ten minutes, using back streets.” “Well, we’d better not hang around longer than necessary.” The man leaned over and unsnapped the leather bag between his knees. The top sagged open, and something inside gleamed briefly in the indirect light. “What’s that?” the biker asked, peering. “I don’t take plastic or precious metals.” “Nothing. Your money’s here.” He patted the breast of his suit jacket. The cyclist waited as his companion reached into his suit pocket.

Then the man, hand still in his pocket, glanced up sharply. “Hold it a minute!” he said in a whisper, leaning in close. “Someone’s coming.” Instinctively, the cyclist leaned in, too. His companion put a hand on the man’s shoulder, signaling intimacy while also helping conceal their faces from the passing pedestrian. Except there was no pedestrian; the walkway was empty. His other hand came out of the suit jacket holding a Spyderco Matriarch 2: a tactical knife whose thin, reverse-S edge was designed for one purpose only. The Emerson wave feature built into its spine meant the blade was already locked open by the time the knife was out of the jacket. The weapon was little more than a black blur as the blade slid between the second and third ribs, its edge going deeper as it traveled, severing the major arteries above the heart before it slipped back out again. The suited man quickly wiped the blade on the biker’s trunks and returned it to his pocket in a smooth gesture.

It all took no more than two seconds. The biker remained motionless in a combination of surprise and shock. Although his thoracic cavity was already filling with blood, the wound itself was so small that very little was dribbling from the rent in his jersey. Meanwhile, the other reached into his Gladstone bag and removed a heavy length of steel chain and a padlock. The rest of the bag was empty, save for a padded rubber-andlatex liner. Standing and making sure no one had come into view, he grabbed the steel scooter, folded it, pressed it against the biker’s chest, then wrapped the biker’s unprotesting arms around it and fixed them in place with the chain. He pulled the ends of the wrapped chain tight and padlocked them together. After one more glance along the walkway and across the river, he pulled the cyclist up and dragged him into the darkness beneath the bridge, to the edge of the water. Heaving the man’s legs over the curb, he released his grip and let the body slide gently into the river. Another ten seconds had passed.

Breathing a little heavily, the man watched as the body sank out of sight, weighed down by the chain and scooter. Then he walked back to the bench, carefully transferred the wrapped object from the backpack to his Gladstone bag, and closed them both. He paused to straighten his tie and smooth down his suit jacket. Then he started briskly down the walkway, up the stone staircase, and past the bicycle, dropping the backpack in a nearby trash bin as he went. He lit another Gauloise and readjusted his grip on the bag before flagging down a cab at the Place Saint-Michel. 2 One hour later CLIVE BENTON SLOWED his vintage Ford Falcon to the side of Wild Irish Road, pulled into a turnoff, and eased the car along a dusty track until it was no longer visible from the thoroughfare. He got out of the Falcon, put up the top, and hoisted a small day pack onto his shoulders. Taking out his phone, he loaded a hiking app and located his position, found a bearing, and set off through the forest. The tall fir trees and lodgepole pines were widely spaced, providing an open forest floor that made walking easy. Despite the season, there wasn’t even a nip of cold: the air was still deceptively heavy with a drowsy kind of warmth.

Looking eastward from between the trees, Benton could see the foothills rising to the distant peaks of the Sierra Nevada, gray teeth against blue. They would soon be covered in snow. Benton was a historian, and he knew as much about the history of this area as any man alive. It had been the heart of California ’49er territory—placer gold country. He could see where hydraulic mining had once scarred the hills with cuts and hollows, the terrain blasted away by gigantic jets of water, which ran the gravel through enormous sluice boxes to capture flakes of gold. But those days were long gone, and these foothills at the western edge of the Sierras, some forty-five miles outside of Sacramento, were mostly depopulated. The scattering of old mining towns—with names like Dutch Flat, Gold Run, Monte Vista, You Bet, and Red Dog—had fallen on hard times. Some had vanished completely, while in a few others, intrepid folk had restored the mining shacks and battenboard hotels as tourist attractions or summer cottages. And the area was in fact beginning to draw a stream of tourists, hikers, and those seeking vacation homes. A development boom had been predicted for years, and now, finally, it seemed to be coming to pass.

Those Gold Rush mansions of the lucky few to have struck it rich could still be found here and there, tucked away in valleys and flats, shuttered and decaying. Benton paused, checking his direction. He was approaching one of those ruined mansions—one that held special meaning for him. The GPS told him it lay a thousand yards to the east of his position, over a low ridge. It was called the Donner House, as it had once belonged to the daughter of Jacob Donner—of the infamous Donner Party. Benton proceeded carefully, silently, keeping to the shadowy parts of the forest. As he climbed the ridge, he slowed. Through the trees he saw bits of orange and yellow, along with a flash of metal, which he knew were two big bulldozers lined up on an old mining road, ready to descend upon the Donner House and turn it into a heap of brick, stucco, and splintered wood beams, making way for a new golf course and condo development along the Bear River. As he approached, the outlines of the dozers and the truck that had transported them began to materialize. The truck was idling, and he could smell diesel fumes from its engine, mingled with the scent of cigarette smoke and the murmur of workmen.

He made a wide detour around them, hurrying across the road at a point where he couldn’t be seen. Moving down the ridge, he could now make out the old house: an early example of the Spanish Colonial Revival style. He came to a low wall at the edge of the forest, which marked the property’s boundary. Crouching behind it, he inspected the house carefully. It had once been striking, with a long, low whitewashed portal along one side, above which stood a Moorish dome and belfry. But the red-tiled roofs had caved in; the windows were gone, leaving gaping dark holes; and the extensive gardens and arboretum had grown into a wild and almost impassable jungle of weeds, dead bushes, and specimen trees suffocated by creepers. The building itself was choked in ivy growing up its walls and erupting from holes in its roof. It was a tangible example, Benton thought, of the ephemeral nature of the world: sic transit gloria mundi. What a crime that by this time tomorrow it would all be gone, bulldozed into a smoking pile of bricks and plaster. Preservationists had tried mightily to save the old wreck, but the numerous descendants who had been arguing over the property for fifty years could find only one solution—its demolition and sale—and the developer’s dollars trumped the preservationists’ pleas.

He glanced back up at the ridge. The workmen had finished unloading the dozers and the truck was revving up, belching a cloud of black diesel, starting to pull out. The workmen—four that he could make out—and their personal vehicles were parked down the road, but they were making no move to leave. In fact, it looked like they might be getting ready to make a final recon of the house. Damn, he’d better get moving. What he was doing was technically breaking and entering, but he assured himself it was in service to a higher ideal. And could you really break and enter into a house that was about to be torn down, anyway? Benton leaped the wall and scurried through the overgrown garden, taking refuge on the ruined porch. When all looked clear, he ducked through an open doorway, finding himself in a spare, cool reception hall smelling of dust and old wood. The place had been cleared of valuables, but some worthless broken-down furniture remained. He did a quick search of the downstairs—the salon, kitchen, courtyard, dining room, servants’ quarters, pantries, and closets—and found nothing.

He was not concerned by that; he did not expect what he was searching for would be there. He quickly mounted the decaying stone staircase to the second floor. He paused to look out the window and was dismayed to see the four workmen bulling their way down through the shrubbery to the house. He should have come earlier. It was five o’clock, and he’d assumed they would have gone home for the day by now. A search of the second floor revealed nothing of interest, either. The old chests that remained fell apart in his hands, the closets were empty, and a few rotting bureaus held nothing more than blankets and clothes chewed up into rats’ nests. A few chromolithographs adorned the walls or lay broken on the floor, stained and foxed. He knew an attic sat under the Moorish dome, but he couldn’t seem to find the stairs up to it. As he moved about, he suddenly heard voices echoing downstairs, accompanied by coarse laughter.

Would the workmen come upstairs? Of course they would. They would have been told to make a final sweep of the house, looking for anything of value and making sure no squatters were living inside. Which meant they’d look everywhere. He moved into the center corridor of the second floor, walking slowly, examining the walls. These old haciendas often had hidden doorways. And there it was: a recessed bookcase, holding just a handful of wormy books. Its empty state made the seam along its outer edge all the more obvious. He gave a heave on the side of the case with his shoulder, and as he hoped, it pivoted out, exposing a staircase leading upward. He slipped through and carefully turned the bookcase back into place, hoping—expecting—that the workmen would not notice it. Surely they wouldn’t realize the dome held an attic room…would they? He mounted the steep circular stairs, sending a surprised mouse scurrying away with a squeak.

The staircase brought him to a plank ceiling with a trapdoor, which he forced open. The rusty hinges made a loud creaking noise and he paused to listen. The tromping of the men continued downstairs, their laughter suggesting they had heard nothing. The attic space was small and, surprisingly, still packed with furniture, boxes, armoires, broken mirrors, steamer trunks, an eight-sided poker table, and other bric-a-brac. As Benton pulled himself up and began to move around, a roost of pigeons, living in the belfry atop the dome, flew off with a great beating of wings. There were pieces here with at least some value; this area must have been missed by the movers. Unfortunately, all this stuff meant he could have a longer search. And with the creaky wooden floor, a search might make noise. He’d better wait for the men to leave. He listened as the voices came up to the second floor.

More tromping about and the creeping smell of cigarette smoke. They surely would not find the door. But they did. He sat up, straining to hear. One of them was exclaiming loudly, and he could hear them heaving on the bookcase and the sliding sound as it pivoted. His heart suddenly pounding, Benton looked around for a hiding place. There was a large armoire he could hide in—but no, it would likely be opened. He pulled open the lid of a trunk, but it was full of junk. He realized there was no good place to hide. He was trapped.

Now the voices were booming up the stairs. They had not started climbing, apparently egging each other on to see who was going to be first. There were four of them and one of him. He spied a heavy chest next to the trapdoor. Yes. That’s it. He seized the corner of the chest and shouldered it across the door, making a loud scraping noise. There was sudden silence from below. It might not be heavy enough. He pushed another chest over, and piled several heavy pieces of furniture on top.

The silence below told him the men could hear everything he was doing. When Benton had piled as much weight as he could on the trapdoor, he sat back and waited. “Hey!” one of the men called up. “Who’s up there?” Benton tried not to breathe. “Who the hell is it?” the man called again. “Come down!” Silence. “We’re waiting for ya!” He held his breath. “Hey, asshole, if you don’t come right down, we’re going to come up and drag your ass out!” He heard a muffled thump, then another, as they tried to push open the trapdoor. But with at least two hundred pounds of junk sitting on top, it wasn’t going to move. He listened, his apprehension turning to amusement as he heard the men trying to shoulder the door open.

They resorted to more pounding. “Okay, pal, we’re calling the cops!” You do that, thought Benton. It would take at least half an hour for the police to arrive, maybe more. He might as well use the time to complete his search. With no more need for quiet, he began tearing open chests, rummaging through old clothes and blankets, pulling out ancient toys and 1940s-era comic books, crumbling board games and old schoolbooks. He pawed through a wormy set of National Geographics, old copies of Life and Stag and Saturday Evening Post and Boy’s Own magazines, along with bundles of newspapers going back almost to Gold Rush days. As he worked, the pounding and threats continued from below, and then the voices went back down the stairs. He saw, from the belfry window, the men coming out into the yard, one apparently trying to get reception for his cell phone. Benton continued his search, moving rapidly but methodically from one corner of the small attic to the other. It was discouraging, just a lot of rotting junk without even a hint of what he was looking for.

Maybe it wasn’t here after all. And then, at the bottom of a seaman’s chest, under a pile of quilts, he found a metal box. Even before he opened it, he knew this must be it. The box was locked, but a rusted metal rod, slipped through the lock’s loop, leveraged it off. He opened the lid, hands trembling with anticipation. Within lay a bundle of letters tightly bound with string, and tucked next to it was an old journal covered in dark green canvas, much soiled. He slipped out the journal and, holding it with the utmost care, eased it open. There, on the front page, written in a precise feminine hand, was a brief legend. He could hardly breathe. This treasure, so sought after, a holy grail of pioneer American history, actually existed.

As his limbs trembled with mingled surprise and jubilation, he realized that he hadn’t dared hope it might be true, or that he would be lucky enough to find it. Even as he searched, he’d never really believed it was there. And yet here he was, and he was holding it in his hands. By pure force of will he overcame his impulse to read on. There would be time for that later, but now he had to get the hell out. He put the diary back in the box and slipped it into his backpack. He went again to the window. Three of the workmen were still outside, and one, now standing on a broken plinth that had formerly held a statue, was talking vociferously into his phone. The jackass really was calling the cops. Benton quickly moved the chests off the trapdoor and listened.

Where was the fourth? Waiting for him? But he heard nothing and finally yanked up the trapdoor. Nobody. The staircase was empty. He descended the stairs as quietly as possible toward the bookcase door, which was standing open. Creeping past it, he looked one way, then the other. The corridor was empty. He headed down the hall. Suddenly, the fourth workman burst around a corner, ambushing him. “There you are, you bastard!” the man roared, swinging his fist into his gut. Benton, taken by surprise, was knocked to the floor, writhing in pain, trying to suck in air and get his breath back.

“He’s here!” the man yelled triumphantly. “I got him!” He turned to face Benton, who was struggling to rise, and gave him a hard kick in the ribs. The violence—and the man’s unnecessary gleefulness in employing it—enraged Benton. His backpack had come off when he hit the floor and now he seized it, surging up and swinging it around, the iron box inside whacking the worker upside the head. The man staggered backward, then fell heavily to the floor. “I’ll kill you!” the man screamed, scrabbling up to his feet. But Benton was already running like hell, backpack in hand. He flew down the stairs, ran toward the back of the mansion, vaulted through an open window, and headed for the overgrowth in the direction of Bear River. The workman was right behind, with the other three also pursuing, but the wiry Benton had spent much of his life hiking in the Sierras and they fell back. He tore through the trees, slid down the embankment, and splashed across the sandbars and channels of the river.

At the main channel he held up the backpack and plunged into the water, swimming hard until his feet touched sand on the far side. He climbed out and turned to see the workmen standing on the opposite embankment, shouting threats. He gave them the finger and then jogged into the woods and made a long loop, crossing the river again way upstream. From there he navigated back to his car with his cell phone GPS, relieved to find his gleaming convertible still hidden. He locked the backpack in the trunk and eased out onto Wild Irish Road. Eight miles down, turning onto the highway, he passed two cop cars, lights flashing, and couldn’t help but laugh out loud.

.

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