Sunday, April 14, 6:25 A.M. Jaca, Spain
Although he was actually seventy-six, Picard appeared to be a sixty-year-old man in excellent condition. He was tall, he had a full head of gray hair cut short, and his posture and bearing further belied his military training. His suit jacket was buttoned closed, his tie was square at his neck, and the creases on his pants were razor sharp. He stood next to the armored old Mercedes with his hands clasped behind his back in a modified position of parade rest.
The butler opened the door, waved to Picard, and held up two fingers. Picard understood, and nodded. La Tesora, the treasure, was almost ready to leave, and would be out in two minutes.
Picard didn't like that, but he knew what was on her mind. To avoid those damned press photographers, Carmen wanted to get to the church early. She hoped to be sitting in her pew before they realized that she had arrived. However, she hadn't told Picard of her new plan, and she was altering his. Pamplona was an hour away, and Carmen was attending the eight o'clock mass. He had arranged for an escort from the Guardia Civil to meet them at the front gate of the estate at 6:45. Unless they were uncommonly conscientious, they wouldn't be there yet.
Picard got behind the wheel, turned off the heat, and then used the car phone to call the front gate.
The gate guard picked up on the first ring. "Ernesto speaking, sir."
"Are they there?" Picard asked.
"Not yet, but it's early," Ernesto answered. "They've still got twenty minutes."
"They've got two."
"Just about. Any traffic?"
"Last car passed half an hour ago. Five-ten."
"Open the gate, and call me if they get here," Picard ordered. He ended that call, and then dialed the desk officer of the Guardia Civil barracks in town.
"Sargento Astuvo, Jaca Barracks. How may I help you?" the sergeant said.
"Good morning, Sergeant. This is Henri Picard. Where are your men?"
"En route, Señor Picard. Is there a problem?"
"Yes, but it's not your fault. We're leaving early. Get them on the radio, please, and find out where they are right now."
"Hold on, señor," the sergeant said. He came back on the line a minute later with the information. "They just passed kilometer marker fifty-three. They'll be there in ten minutes."
Fifteen minutes, unless they're driving like madmen, Picard thought. The estate was near kilometer marker 29, so their escort was still 24 kilometers away. The road from town wound through the Pyrenées foothills, and Picard couldn't think of a place along the route where he would drive more than 80 kilometers per hour. "Tell them to slow down. We'll meet them at marker fifty."
"As you say, señor."
At that moment, the butler again opened the front door, and Picard was surprised to see that the normally staid man was smiling ear to ear. Then Carmen appeared in the doorway, and the way she looked and the way she was dressed prompted Picard to smile as well. He had thought that one year of black was appropriate for the death of her husband, and two years was more than enough. Five years was just too long for a beautiful woman to grieve and shut herself off from the world, and he had told her as much at dinner the day before.
Carmen had finally listened to him. She was a natural blonde who had dyed her hair black during her mourning period for reasons Picard could never entirely fathom, but she must have had her live-in hairdresser working late into the night. She was wearing a light green skirt and jacket with matching high heels and purse, and a pale yellow silk blouse and scarf.
Picard thought the color combination was perfect. Green to match her eyes, and yellow to match her hair.
Carmen stopped to kiss the butler on the cheek and shake his hand, and Picard saw that, after twenty-five years of service, the man still hadn't gotten used to Carmen and her ways. The richest woman in Spain was also the nicest and most gracious woman in Spain, and she considered her staff to be her family. The butler blushed, as Picard had known he would, and bowed awkwardly.
Carmen didn't appear to notice the man's discomfort as she walked down the steps. Picard got out of the car and opened the rear door, but he suspected Carmen wouldn't be getting right in.
He was right. She stopped and did a slow turn for him so he could inspect her outfit. "Are you happy now, Monsieur Picard?" she asked, smiling.
"Tesora mia, you have made me the happiest old man in the world. I am so glad I have lived to see you so beautiful once again."
"Do you think this green is a little too loud?"
"Not at all, it is perfectly your color. You will turn every head in Pamplona today."
The smile left Carmen's face, and Picard thought for a moment that he had said the wrong thing. Carmen knew, of course, that she was beautiful, and she had long since become accustomed to being the center of attention wherever she went. Unfortunately, she had also become painfully shy and self-conscious since Hector's death. Her public appearances were rare, and the compliments she used to accept as obvious truth now made her uncomfortable.
But not this time, Picard was relieved to see. The smile returned to Carmen's face, and it didn't appear to be forced like most of her smiles had been for the past five years. Then she spread her arms and he hugged her like a child. "Isn't it such a beautiful day?" she asked as he patted her back.
"It is, with you in it. Is this new look just for today, or have you finally decided to live again?"
"I've decided to do whatever you tell me to do, just like the old days. We will be happy again, God willing."
"For you, God must will it. At least one of his saints is entitled to be happy in her lifetime," Picard said softly, knowing she would protest. He loved Carmen like a daughter, but he had another feeling for her that always made her uncomfortable whenever it surfaced. She was a deeply religious woman, and Picard was certain she was a living saint; therefore, he worshipped her, and thought it likely that statues of Carmen would be placed in churches all over Spain soon after her death.
And Carmen did protest his sacrilegious observation, but not at first with words. She pinched his back, and he released her. "Monsieur Picard, you will never change," she said with a pout, and then she stared at his face and again smiled.
I really have become a silly old man, Picard thought, conscious that Carmen had noticed the tears forming at the corners of his eyes. She used her scarf to dab at his eyes, and then she kissed him on the cheek and got into the car. "Is Ernesto at the gate this morning?" she asked when Picard put the car in motion.
"I'd like to speak with him."
"Certainly." It took Picard two minutes to reach the front gate of the estate. Ernesto was standing outside the gate house, waiting for them with his head bowed. Like Picard, Ernesto also considered Carmen to be a living saint, but there was a difference between the ways they regarded her. Ernesto was built like a bull, and he was tough and fearless, but he was also very religious. For reasons Picard could only guess at, Ernesto never looked directly at Carmen's face.
Picard suspected that Ernesto's attitude bothered Carmen, but she had never mentioned it. He stopped next to Ernesto, and Carmen rolled down her window. Ernesto waited in the manner of the old peons, with his hands held in front of him and his head bowed low. "Good morning, Doña Carmen," he said in a low voice.
"Good morning, Ernesto. Tomorrow is your Graciela's birthday, isn't it?"
"Yes Doña Carmen. How kind of you to remember. She will be six tomorrow."
"Six already? How time flies," Carmen said. "How is she doing in school?"
"Well. She is making me too proud, I fear."
"Has she many friends?"
"Perfect. We must have a party for her tomorrow, if that's alright with you and your wife."
Ernesto appeared shocked at the idea. "A party here?"
"Of course, here. Our house will be a happy place once again, and I think a party for Graciela is a good way to start," Carmen said. Then she reached into her purse, took out an envelope, and gave it to Ernesto. "Please tell Graciela not to be insulted. I had thought she was going to be four, so I made the card for a younger girl."
"You made her a birthday card, Doña Carmen?" Ernesto asked, holding the envelope to his heart.
"I made her many, but I think that one came out the best. Please get together with Monsieur Picard this afternoon and make the arrangements. I want this to be a party she will remember."
"Yes, Doña Carmen. You have honored me and my family."
"As you have always honored me by your loyal service. We'll talk again after you and Monsieur Picard have drawn up a list of things you'll need."
"Yes, Doña Carmen. Thank you, Doña Carmen," Ernesto said, bowing again.
Picard made a left on the two-lane highway leading south toward Jaca, and he was sure of two things. Since Carmen was generous to a fault, Picard knew that, besides the card, the envelope also contained thousands of pesetas. The other was that the birthday card made by Carmen would be revered and passed down for generations in Ernesto's family.
Picard checked the rearview mirror and saw that Carmen had decided on a nap. He loved watching her, but had to keep his eyes on the difficult, winding mountain road. Forty kilometers behind them were the snow covered Pyrenées and France, clearly visible on that beautiful spring morning in one of the most scenic parts of Spain. At that altitude, the countryside was sparsely wooded, but they would soon be in a lush pine forest as they descended to Jaca. Ahead lay La Llanura, Spain's great central plain, and Picard could sometimes see it in the distance as he rounded curves in the road. There wasn't a cloud in the sky, and all indications were that the beautiful day was going to get even better.
Carmen deserves this weather on this special day, Picard thought. The village priest from Jaca usually came to the house every day to hear Carmen's confession and hold mass for her in her chapel, but today would be a different sort of mass. It was Palm Sunday, and the renovations to the old Basque cathedral in Pamplona had been completed just in time. Carmen had paid for it all, and was even having the cathedral's dilapidated parochial school renovated in the summer. As always, she had insisted that her name not be disclosed as the donor of the money, but somehow the press had found out she was the one responsible. Carmen had gotten as angry as Carmen can get when she learned of the leaka state of mind that might be classified as mildly annoyed in any other personbut there was nothing she could do about it. Her generosity was exposed for all to see, and everyone on her staff was secretly delighted. The work had taken ten months, and Carmen had never once visited the project, so today would be the first time she would see the difference her money had made to the ancient cathedral of the devoutly Catholic Basque people of Pamplona.
Picard checked the rearview mirror again at a straight stretch in the road, and he saw that there was another car about a half kilometer behind him, and getting closer. He didn't like that; the road leading from Jaca to the French border was ordinarily very lightly traveled, and Picard didn't believe in coincidence. He loved the old Mercedes, but he knew its limitations. The engine was powerful enough, but the weight of the armor plating made the vehicle difficult to operate at high speed in turns. He increased his speed as much as he dared, but knew the car behind would soon be in position to overtake him if the driver had any skill behind the wheel.
The driver did have skill, and more than Picard had expected. There was a straight stretch in the road at the Kilometer 36 marker, and by the time Picard had passed it, the car was only 100 meters behind him and still closing fast. That was when Picard saw something else he didn't like. The car was a late-model red BMW; while Picard thought the BMW was a fine motoring machine, he had years before grown weary of the people who drove them, and believed that BMW owners, as a class, were the rudest people on the road.
The driver of the car behind did nothing to alter that belief. He flicked his brights repeatedly, indicating that he wanted to pass. The road was winding down the foothills once again, so Picard ignored him. However, he did take one precaution, removing the 9 mm Berretta from his holster and placing it on the seat next to him. He checked his rearview mirror again. The driver of the BMW was still flashing his brights, and Carmen was awake and staring out the back window. Picard could see that the driver was middle-aged, with a mustache and a full head of black hair, and he was wearing a red shirt that matched the color of his car.
"Can you see the plate number?" Picard asked.
"Yes. It's SS nine-one-four-six-two."
Picard didn't like that, either. The "SS" prefix meant the car was registered in San Sebastian, the heart of the Basque country. The beautiful city was also the power base for the ETA, a terrorist organization that had been blowing up Spanish politicians and murdering members of the Guardia Civil for twenty years in their bid to win independence for the three Spanish provinces that comprised the Basque Country.
Kidnapping was another ETA stock-in-trade tool, and Picard recognized that Carmen was a perfect target. Although they were both Basqueshe a French Basque and she a Spanish Basqueit was generally known that Carmen was the most generous contributor to the peace movement Vascos Contra la ViolenciaBasques Against the Violencean organization that had garnered the support of the majority of Basques in recent years.
Picard had the number of the Jaca Barracks on speed dial, and he called it. Once again, Sergeant Astuvo answered the phone. Picard told him about the BMW, gave him the plate number, along with some terse instructions and a request. He wanted the Guardia Civil team at Kilometer Marker 50 to wait for him at marker 45, he wanted them out of the car and ready for action, and he wanted to know if the BMW was stolen.
"Yes, sir. One moment, please," Astuvo said. It was another minute before he came back on the line. By then, Picard was passing kilometer marker 39. The BMW was right on his tail, and the driver was still flashing his brights. "The car hasn't been reported stolen, and my unit will meet you at marker forty-five."
"Thank you, Sargento. I hope I'm not creating a tempest in a teapot," Picard said. "In any event, I'm going to stay on the line until I meet your people."
"Yes, sir. Understood."
There was another straight stretch of road between markers 41 and 42, and the BMW tried to pass the Mercedes at that point. Picard decided to let him. He picked up his pistol, slowed down, and he got as far left as he could. The driver of the BMW didn't give Picard the slightest glance as he passed. Instead, he concentrated on the road ahead as he accelerated and quickly disappeared from view.
Must be doing more than a hundred kilometers an hour, madness on this road in any car, Picard thought as he let go a sigh of relief. Then he picked up the phone and told Astuvo that the BMW had passed.
"Do you want my men to stop it?" Astuvo asked.
"No. Let the driver kill himself without any official help."
"Let's hope he doesn't. I don't know if I should be telling you this, but I checked that car out a bit more. The owner is a San Sebastian cop."
"Then he's an idiot cop, but there's no need for this to go any further."
"Then it won't go any further," Astuvo said.
Picard ended the call, and came upon the green-and- white Guardia Civil car a moment later. They were parked on the southbound side of the road at the kilometer marker, with the front of the car facing Jaca, and, as Picard had instructed, they were out of the car.
Picard knew both of the cops, Ricardo Brizuela and Alexander Vargas. Both were seasoned veterans with the Guardia Civil, which meant they had seen more than their share of action while working in the Basque Country years ago. When Spain had been ruled by Franco, the Guardia Civil had been one of the principle means he had used to oppress the Basques, their language, and their culture. The force had been universally despised by the Basques, and with good reason. However, things had changed for the better since Franco had died, and the Guardia Civil had become a kinder, gentler police force that, except for highway patrol duties, had been largely withdrawn from the Basque Country.
Picard pulled in front of the police car, and the two officers approached. "Sorry we weren't at the house to meet you, Senor Picard," Brizuela said. "We didn't come on duty until six."
"Nothing to be sorry about. Not your fault," Picard said, and then he heard Carmen lower her window.
"Ricardo Brizuela, isn't it?" she asked.
Brizuela drew himself to attention and saluted. "Yes, Doña Carmen. I am honored that you remembered my name."
"And I'm honored that you remembered mine," she said, then turned toward Vargas. "However, I'm sorry that I don't remember your name."
Like Brizuela, Vargas also drew himself to attention and saluted. "Alexander Vargas. At your service, Doña Carmen."
"Well, Ricardo and Alexander, you certainly have nothing to be sorry for. The fault for the confusion this morning is mine. I got up early and decided to leave early, and I didn't stop to think that I might be inconveniencing people with my actions."
"No inconvenience at all," Vargas said.
"Really? Have you had breakfast?"
"No, señora. We haven't had time."
"Then you are inconvenienced on my account, and that won't do. I'm hoping you'll both join us for lunch when we get home. I think we're having rabbit and sausage."
Rabbit and sausage was considered a local delicacy in the Basque country, and the dish had also become a favorite among the Spanish civil servants who lived there. Brizuela and Vargas looked stunned by the offer, and then they looked to Picard.
"When we get home, I'll call Sargento Astuvo and tell him that your services will be required for another hour," Picard said, ending their concern. "What did you think of that BMW?"
"Got him on radar. Passed us doing ninety-seven kilometers an hour, and he didn't even slow down when he saw our car," Vargas said. "Just gave us a wave and kept going."
"He's not going to last long, and we can't imagine where he could be coming from," Brizuela added. "We called the frontier, and he didn't cross the border this morning."
"Strange," Picard said. "There are very few houses between here and France, and nothing I'd consider a point of interest. Did you hear that he's a San Sebastian cop?"
"Yes, Sargento Astuvo told us," Vargas said. "Rather reckless, and certainly not a role model when it comes to his driving."
"No, he's not. I think it's time we got going again," Picard said.
The two cops got in their car and followed the Mercedes for another two kilometers. At that point, the road ran steeply downhill. Straight ahead was a stout stone wall that guarded a scenic vista of La Llanura. The road curved to the right to hug the hill, but the BMW hadn't. The car had plowed into the stone wall and bounced off so that it blocked the road. The driver's door was open, but the airbag had deployed and he was pressed into his seat, motionless with his seat belt still on.
Picard stopped the car and inspected the scene twenty yards in front of him. From the looks of the damaged front end of the BMW, he estimated that the car had hit the wall at about 60 kilometers per hour. Since there were no skid marks on the road leading to the point of impact, he immediately suspected a trap at a perfect spot. To the left was a guard rail, and from there the hill dropped precipitously for a hundred meters. To the right were pine trees and boulders, a good spot to hide an ambush party.
Although the man behind the wheel was wearing a red shirt, Picard also suspected that he was not the driver who had passed him. He put the Mercedes in reverse, and looked behind him. The Guardia Civil car was blocking him. Worse, Brizuela and Vargas had just left it, and were walking toward him.
"Get down, Tesora! It's a trap," Picard shouted, an instant before his suspicions were confirmed. A rocket was fired into the Guardia Civil car from someplace on the hill to their right, and the car exploded in a ball of flame. The force of the explosion rocked the Mercedes, and picked up both Brizuela and Vargas and hurled them off the road, Brizuela to the right and Vargas to the left. Brizuela hit a tree, and fell motionless to the ground, but Vargas fared worse. He was thrown over the guardrail on the left side of the road, and tumbled down the cliff to certain death.
Then the ambushers closed the trap. Armed men left their hiding places in the wooded hill on the right, and they took up positions to block any escape. In front of him, Picard saw three men take cover behind the BMW. Two were armed with AK-47s, and the third had a Soviet-era rocket-propelled grenade launcher aimed at the Mercedes. Picard knew the RPG as a nasty weapon, but was still surprised at how effective it had been against the Guardia Civil car behind him. Incendiary grenade, he figured. Because of the smoke billowing from the burning vehicle, he couldn't see the road behind him, but he was sure that avenue of escape was also blocked by other armed men, at least one of whom would be armed with another RPG. He figured that the armored Mercedes might be able to withstand the blast, but the car would certainly be incapacitated.
Picard examined his options, and found none that wouldn't risk Carmen's life. It had been a well-planned, well-executed ambush, and it was time to surrender. The only bright spot he could see was that the ambushers were wearing ski masks pulled over their faces, so perhaps they planned to let him live. After all, he was a Basque, he couldn't identify them, and they might think he posed no danger to them. If so, that would be their first mistake, Picard resolved.
There was a danger that the fire would spread to the Mercedes, so he put the car in neutral, let it roll slowly downhill to the BMW as the men in front kept their weapons trained on him. Then he shut off the ignition, opened his window, threw out his gun and the car keys, and turned to face Carmen.
Carmen was on her knees on the back seat, her face pressed to the rear window. "We must help Ricardo," Carmen said, so calmly that Picard wasn't sure that she fully realized what was happening.
"I'm sorry, Tesora. If he's not dead already, he soon will be," Picard said. "When that happens, don't watch."
"He's alive. I think I saw his leg move," Carmen said, and then she turned and sat. "Monsieur Picard, we mustn't let them kill him."
Her eyes were as wide as saucers, but she didn't appear to be afraid.
"Then we'll do what we can, but we only have a moment to talk. They are going to take you, Tesora, and there is nothing I can do about that right now. However, if they let me live, I promise I'll get you back."
Carmen placed her hand on Picard's cheek and held it there. "I know you will, Monsieur Picard, and I'll be strong until then," she said, and then looked out the windshield past Picard. "They're coming. Take care of the families of both those officers until you get me back."