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France Magazine wrote about Trap -
“If you like fast-paced mystery novels, then you’ll love this unique tale about an American Interpol agent stationed in the Montmartre neighborhood of Paris.”
Why is Paris burning?
For money – a lot of it,
more than you can possibly imagine.
A serial arsonist killer is loose and American Interpol agent Nicki Foster fights to stop him. Hideous arsons are murdering fire crews and Nicki finds there is a dark logic behind the crimes. To stay alive, Nicki and Fire Captain Paul Denis race to solve a puzzle leading to an immense fortune. Lose the race and a flashover fire will burn them alive, leaving only an x-ray of their bones behind.
is an American from New York City living in a studio apartment in the old Parisian artist colony of Montmartre. From her tiny one-room studio, she has a cherished view of the last remaining vineyard in Paris, a relic of the time when the great Impressionists lived and painted in Montmartre because it was cheap, a rural farming community on the outskirts of the bustling metropolitan city.
Nicki’s ambition is to spend all her free time exploring the world of art, but she seldom gets the chance. She’s worked her way up from the bottom at Interpol to become a field agent, earn a decent if not great salary and get a little respect.
Last year she helped the Paris Police, the Surete, crack an old crime and it got her the long awaited promotion to full agent. But it also brought her the hatred of a rich and powerful man now determined to crush her. City Commissioner Alain Vernier has plans for how Nicki Foster will spend her next few days, running for her life with no chance of winning.
Interpol Headquarters in Lyon, France
The First Burn
Storyboard art used in creating Trap appears only on this website, not in the book.
At three a.m. in the morning Paris was quiet, unaware of the tragedy that would happen in a few minutes. City Commissioner Alain Vernier stared at Paris through the windows of his 22nd floor office. His view was spectacular, especially at night. Paris was truly the city of light. Well-lit boulevards glittered like diamond necklaces and thousands of lamps outlined every joint in the Eiffel Tower’s iron skeleton.
Vernier glanced at his $50,000 Patek Philippe wristwatch. He was Swiss and expected everything to follow his detailed plan. Alain Vernier was angry when seconds ticked past the exact mark of three a.m. and nothing happened. He peered intently at a dark speck in the distance where his destiny was in the hands of another person. Vernier hated delegating control over his life to anyone, even a top professional paid several million dollars per job.
At last it happened, almost five minutes late. Orange flame seared the night, a pinprick of brilliant light like the flash on a camera. The visual event was over so fast Vernier had trouble believing anything happened. He was reassured by a red glow marking the spot where a quick fire had occurred.
Vernier knew a police inspector would call in an hour and ask for instructions on how to deal with newspapers and television stations eager for a ghoulish story. The chief inspector would expect Vernier to be at home, asleep and he’d pretend to be there. That was the beauty of cell phones. Nobody really knew where you were.
City Commissioner Vernier leaned back in his custom-made executive chair and relaxed. He allowed himself a rare smile of satisfaction. Soon he wouldn’t have to worry about doing favors for campaign donors. They’d be doing favors for him, whether they liked it or not. He wouldn’t need wealthy patrons to build his power base. He’d be richer than any of them. Oh, there were risks, but in his position there were always risks.
He indulged himself in a snifter of hundred-year-old cognac until the police finally called him. Vernier let his cell phone chime again and again, as though he were forcing himself to awaken from a deep sleep. Finally, he answered the call. “Yes, what is it?”
Alain Vernier heard the timid voice of Chief Inspector Clement apologizing for waking up the City Commissioner. Clement explained details of a crime scene, a burned warehouse. He cleared his throat and asked a hesitant question. The media were demanding a press conference. What should he tell reporters?
Vernier waited a moment as though he were thinking, but his reply had been rehearsed for weeks, part of a deliberate plan. “Tell the press,” he said, “that we are speeding up the investigation by having Interpol assist us.”
“Interpol?” Chief Inspector Clement asked in disbelief, his pride stung. “I assure you we can handle anything – ”
Vernier cut him off. “Chief Inspector, this warehouse fire was obviously the work of an arsonist, a top professional. A pro will not stay in France, waiting to be caught. By now, he is out of the country. We must take immediate steps to find the criminal. I don’t want to wait two weeks before you look for this arsonist in other countries. I want Interpol on the case now. Do you understand me?”
“Of course, City Commissioner,” was the choked reply. There was a long pause. Then Clement asked in a tight voice, “Is there anything else?”
“Yes.” Vernier talked in a slow, malicious way. “Last year, you told me with great pride how you solved an old case. But I discovered all the clues were found by an Interpol agent, a young woman. You even sent a note praising her to Interpol Headquarters in Lyon. I want her on this case, since you think so highly of her. I believe she was – ” Vernier paused, as though he was trying to recall her name.
“Nicki Foster,” was the strained response from Chief Inspector Clement.
“Good, you remember her. Get this Foster out of bed. Have her look at the fire scene. Maybe she can get this case moving.” Vernier said the last part with deliberate contempt. “Oh, and have the Fire Chief report to my office in an hour. I’ll meet him there and present him with a little ‘gift’ for his incompetent training methods.” Alain Vernier was rude, hanging up the phone on the Surete Chief Inspector.
Vernier wanted the insult to sting, wanted to make certain Chief Inspector Clement hated Nicki Foster and hoped she would fail. That, of course, was the whole idea. She was supposed to fail.
There was great satisfaction in humiliating Nicki Foster, ending her promising career. A year ago, Foster caused City Commissioner Vernier a lot of trouble by solving an old crime. He’d done a favor for a powerful lobbyist and made a problem go away. But that meddling American Interpol agent wrecked everything. She resurrected the case by finding carefully hidden clues. Vernier wanted revenge against Nicki Foster and he was getting it, starting this morning.
Vernier looked at the 24-carat gold clock on his desk, one of the rare antiques he collected. A modern digital mechanism had replaced the inner workings of the timepiece. The clock showed 4:38 a.m. By now the Surete were calling Nicki Foster, pushing her into Vernier’s trap.
I was snuggled in the fold-down bed of my Montmartre studio apartment, deep asleep, dreaming of Central Park in the crisp air and brilliant colors of Autumn, when my home town of New York City finally has weather fit for human beings. I was hoping the dream would take me into MOMA, the Museum of Modern Art, and I’d spend a pleasant moment floating into Rene Magritte’s The Human Condition, a mischievous painting where you can’t tell where the canvas ends and reality begins.
As usual I didn’t get my wish. Instead, I woke to the annoying trilling of my phone, sounding like an alarm clock. I should have ignored it. Answering that call was a big mistake, the kind that twists your life inside out. But I lifted my head and fumbled for the telephone. I put the cool plastic handset against my ear and heard a scratchy voice asking for Nicki Foster of Interpol.
My mouth was dry. I ran my tongue around my parched mouth to find some saliva, so I could talk without sounding like I was in the hospital. Finally I croaked, “Yeah . . . this is Nicki. What’s wrong?”
The answer shocked me. “Sorry. All right, I’ll check the fire scene for you. I have to go now? It’s the middle of the night.” My room was black inside. It couldn’t be time to get up. There wasn’t a trace of light pushing through the sheers on the window. I looked around and couldn’t see anything in the dark but green lettering of the clock telling me it was 4:38 a.m. “OK, I’ll go right away.” I sighed.
I threw the comforter around me and stumbled out of bed, wishing there was time for breakfast, at least a cup of instant coffee to warm my hands in the car. I glanced at the crumbs of last night’s dinner, left on a paper plate. A life-long New Yorker, I wanted to be in Zabar’s, devouring a bagel slathered with cream cheese and strawberry jam. I could almost smell the espresso and hear the steam hissing.
Instead, I grabbed clean panties and dragged them on my tired body. Pulling a thin sweater over my head, I got a fuzz in my mouth and plucked lint off my tongue, sputtering. I loved the sweater for its soft warmth, though it had a nasty habit of shedding all over me. A pair of casual wool slacks finished my outfit. I didn’t need to wear a formal business suit, just something to keep me warm. I was walking through a burned warehouse, not a diplomatic gala, escorting the secret service.
I swirled a cap of mouthwash to rinse away any dragon breath and did a fast check in the mirror, roughing up my hair so it looked combed. My mind was still asleep, hardly grasping that I was going to work. I grabbed my leather jacket, wallet and car keys, then started out the door. Walking down the worn treads of my apartment stairs, I peeked through a stairway window for a glimpse of Montmartre’s famed church, the Sacre Coeur. Its unique beehive domes poked above the rooftops. The day was just starting, with pink sunlight leaking over buildings. Dew steamed off Sacre Coeur’s white domes in fine wisps.
I reached in my jacket and snapped a quick photo with my battered camera, a high school graduation present that should have been discarded years ago. But it still worked, so I kept it handy, using it to freeze beautiful images. I promised myself I’d one day paint those images, dragging my dusty easel to the apartment roof on a mythical Sunday morning to start my real life. In the meantime, my other “real life” was calling. I hustled downstairs to find the Interpol car I’d taken home last night, against regulations.
My path threaded among the most eccentric homes in Paris, with styles that were strange even in Montmartre, where bizarre is normal. I turned into a courtyard formed by a jumble of houses squeezed together. A miniature Tuscan villa leaned into a Swiss chalet, sharing a wall with a modernistic concrete box. In another block, I found the patrol car I’d driven home and wiped dew off its windshield.
The sun rose as I drove, brightening rooftops but turning streets into dark canyons where long shadows played over the sidewalks, sliding across streets and up storefronts. I fell in line with early commuters rolling down Montmartre’s hills. Paris unfolded below me in a carpet of twinkling buildings and streaking headlights. I took a moment to fall in love with the city all over again.
Paris is a mood that touches everyone who stops at a sidewalk cafe and experiences how intimate each little nook of a huge, anonymous city can feel. Every block is its own world, with shops and restaurants that are tiny by American standards, barely larger than a bedroom. There’s always a bistro anchoring the end of the block. Seven generations bought their tobacco here because their parents did. They lean their elbows on the same zinc bar to drink a beer at day’s end, before climbing flights of stairs to a small flat they call home.
The city is a paradox of tradition and energy where you always feel something unexpected is going to happen. For me, the unexpected was about to happen, and I wouldn’t like it. What came next wasn’t a dream but a nightmare. A slide into hell was starting and soon I’d be scrambling for a way out, fighting for my life.
At 5:16 a.m. my unmarked Interpol sedan jiggled over potholed asphalt in an older section of Paris. I parked behind a delivery truck and opened the car door, stepping into a frigid dawn. Jamming cold hands in my jacket pockets, I walked toward the fire scene, my breath forming clouds in the icy morning air. All around me, water from a firefighting effort rushed downhill in thick streams, pouring into gutters and drains with a loud gurgling sound. The morning sun glistened on the thick pool of water, a flood spilling over sidewalks, painting them black with cinders. I was forced to jump from one island of ugly debris to another, making my way over fire hoses wrapped like thick spaghetti around a burned warehouse.
I glanced up and saw a firefighter approaching me, a silver fire captain’s badge glinting on his coat. The black fireproof coat hung to his ankles, dragging against slick yellow boots. He looked about thirty and a long, difficult night showed in his tired walk and the soot on his face. The tightness in his eyes and the hard set of his jaw made him look tough, street smart yet there were kind eyes stranded on the hard face.
He walked over to me. “Good morning. I’m Paul Denis. You’re Inspector Foster of Interpol?”
“Yes. But nobody calls me Inspector Foster. I go by Nicki.” I gave him a warm smile in sympathy for his exhaustion.
Paul yanked off a thick Nomex fire glove, tucking it under an arm. He shook my hand and the skin on his fingers was coarse as sandpaper, calloused from dragging fire hoses the way a fisherman hauls lines. “Thanks for coming right away. The Paris police were here earlier. They said Interpol would look at the damage. Where do you want to start?”
“With the injured firefighters.” I took out a notebook to capture details. “They’re most important. Were they hurt inside the building?”
“They weren’t injured, Nicki. They were killed. The entire crew died over there, by the fire truck.” Paul Denis swept his hand toward a wrecked fire engine. The raw power of the firestorm had bent a seven ton vehicle into a horseshoe.
I was astonished to see fire helmets stuck in the truck’s side like arrows shot in a target. Apparently the firefighters were blown into the truck, slammed backward by a blast of fire. Heat welded their helmets to the steel truck, bending tough safety hats into the shape of licking tongues. Six firefighters were still wearing those helmets when the hats melted, pouring burning plastic on their faces. Then the firestorm finished the job, incinerating ears and lips.
I couldn’t pull my eyes off blackened flesh left on the chin strap of a helmet. I knew a person’s face burned until only their jaw remained, seared to the leather strap. “God,” I muttered. I realized my hands were tight fists and took a deep breath, prying my stiff fingers open. I dragged my eyes off the charred flesh and put them on Paul Denis.
“I pulled a jaw out of that helmet so the teeth can be ID’d by the coroner.” His face tightened. “It’s a sickening thing, you know?”
I could see the pain in his eyes. “You’ve been through a lot. Do you need a few minutes by yourself, before we go ahead?”
“No,” Paul insisted. “This won’t get any easier. Let’s do it now.”
“OK.” I nodded in sympathy. “You found their heads, but what happened to their bodies?”
“We didn’t find any bodies, Nicki.” Paul Denis motioned to yellow splashes on the ground, like someone dumped paint cans in the alley. “The yellow was their boots.” He pointed at sparkling white streaks, glistening in the street. “Here’s reflective striping from their coats.”
I said in astonishment, “The fire was so hot their bodies melted into the ground? Boots, coats, everything?”
“Yes. Splashes of color are all that’s left of them. Here’s proof.” Paul picked up a crowbar lying on the ground. He used the tip of the steel bar to outline a human hand, ironed by the fire’s heat until the hand was flat as a sheet of paper. The fingers were gray shadows like an x-ray of a hand, just bones fanning from the wrist joint. The curled fingers were grasping for a way out and it never happened. Instead the firefighters’ last moments were tortured by savage pain as their skin burned off. I felt nauseous at how the crew died and took deep breaths to settle my stomach.
Paul Denis was studying me intently, a sympathetic look on his face. “You’re all right?”
“Yeah. I’m OK. It hit me how they died.” I asked Paul, “Did you know any of the crew?”
“I knew Fire Captain Charles Blanc.” He looked sadly at yellow streaks marking the dead fire crew. “One time, Charles saved my life.” Paul tossed the crowbar down in disgust and it hit the ground with a ringing sound. He slapped his hands gently against the heavy black firecoat. “Well, taking risks is what we’re paid to do.”
“Not these kind of risks,” I said. “So this was some businessman torching his warehouse for insurance money?”
“Oh, it had to be arson. This fire was very unusual. The arsonist cooked the burn so hot it melted bodies into the ground. That rarely happens. It needs a flashover, a blast of intense heat that doesn’t linger. A flashover does a quick melt. A long fire leaves ashes. To get a flashover, the arsonist needed an exotic chemical. This guy was a real pro.”
Paul shifted his weight and looked down. He dragged a shoe in a tight circle, scraping at the alley with his boot. “This wasn’t just an arson job by a top pro. Maybe it’s paranoid of me, but I’m sure there’s more to it.”
I encouraged Paul, “OK, be paranoid. What else is on your mind?”
“The arsonist wanted to kill my firefighters and he did it exactly right, a perfect ambush. He caught us getting off the truck, when we were standing together. This was a trap, I can feel it. I think the arsonist was watching and called in a fire alarm, pretending to be a security guard. His timing was perfect. He waits for the crew to step off the truck, then ignites his torch. Bam, his flashover hits the firefighters and kills them.”
“OK, this was a deliberate killing.” The idea sickened me, but I went on with my job. “Any ideas why the arsonist wanted the fire crew dead?”
“No, I haven’t a clue. Worse, I have a bad feeling it won’t end here. We’ll be hit again soon.”
“I hope not.” I let out a sigh and watched my breath fog in the cold morning air. “It takes a long time to catch a professional arsonist. Did you find anything that might speed up the investigation?”
He wagged his head in a no. “I’ll cut a slice of the melted floor and send a sample to the lab. They can look for trace chemicals, find what accelerant the arsonist used. But it’ll take days to sort out what happened here. Everything in that warehouse fused in the heat, mixing up the clues.”
“Sorry,” I sympathized. “Did you find containers that held the accelerant? Or fragments of the triggering device used to ignite the torch?”
“No and I doubt we will,” Paul responded, kicking cinders out of his way.
“Why is that?” I wondered.
“Two reasons. First, this was a top pro. They have a lot of tricks for making certain no container or timer is left behind.” Paul shrugged.
“And the other reason?”
“It was fifteen minutes before I got here with a backup team. That’s enough time to remove any evidence. The arsonist probably wore a special suit, like they use for measurements inside volcanoes or Hollywood stunts. Wearing that suit, he could walk into the burning warehouse and carry away evidence.”
“Too bad. I’m sorry.” I pointed to the center of the warehouse, where the firestorm burned a shallow impression in the concrete floor. Steel beams were twisted by the firestorm with tremendous force. “Maybe there’s a clue in the shape of things. I wish I could see this place from above, look down on it. I can get a helicopter this afternoon and take photos from the air.”
Paul smiled. “Let’s take the photos now.” I had an uneasy feeling about what he was going to suggest. Before I could protest, Paul walked toward a half-block-long aerial ladder truck with its stabilizers spread out. “Come on,” he shouted, waving at me to catch up with him.
I followed Paul up a chrome ladder. There was a catwalk running along the fire engine, a truck so long it needed two drivers. There was a second firefighter in a booth at the back of the vehicle. He steered the rear wheels and controlled the aerial ladder. Paul waved at the guy in the booth and got a thumbs up, meaning we were going to be lifted in the air.
I climbed on a small platform at the end of the aerial ladder and was jerked upward about three feet, startling me. The ladder swung upward, carrying me to second story balconies. Soon I was lifted me above the roofline of surrounding buildings.
“Keep your eyes on the horizon. It helps. And hold tight,” Paul shouted. He was standing a few steps below me.
“Sure,” I said, trying to sound calm. I clamped my hands on the white railing in front of me as the ladder kept rising. The blue steel of the Pompidou Center became visible in the distance and I had a pretty nice view of Paris. I was beginning to like the experience when the easy part ended.
Suddenly I felt like I was on a thrill ride in an amusement park, but without the safety features. I shot forward as ladder sections extended. At the same time, I swirled around, twisting over the warehouse. The illusion of safety from having a huge fire engine under me was gone. I was floating sixty feet off the ground, my shoes on a thin steel plank, wind rushing up my pant legs. When we stopped moving, I was pushed into the railing with a shallow grunt.
“You’re over the warehouse. You can look down now,” Paul announced.
“Great.” I hoped I’d spoken the word without revealing my anxiety. I took a deep breath and glanced down. Sixty feet below was the burned-out shell of the building. The warehouse roof was gone and tall brick walls were shortened to a charred hedge. Inside the hedge, blackened steel pillars looked like a crop burned in a grass fire, rows of dead stalks waiting to fall in the wind. The arson had been incredibly hot, baking the cement floor into colored glass, like artist’s ceramic glazed in a kiln. Any contents stored in the warehouse were gone, turned into colored splotches scattered across the glassy floor. I stared at the hot cement floor and was fascinated by swirls of colored glass running under me.
I could see a path where the firestorm cut through the warehouse, slamming things out of its way. Heat flamed out the loading dock and hit six firefighters chest high, tearing off their heads. A half dozen heads strapped to helmets were shot into a fire engine like arrows and the seven ton truck was bent in a “U.” Six headless bodies were pressed with enormous force into the pavement. The blast of heat flattened the bodies, ironing their stretched torsos on the asphalt. The shapes of a half dozen dead firefighters were etched on the pavement below me.
I put aside the grisly image and shouted over a cold, snapping wind. “We need a picture of this. The path of the fire is a good clue.”
“You got it,” Paul yelled back. “There’s a pair of arson investigation cameras in the fire engine. I’ll be right back with them – unless you’d care to come along.” He grinned.
“Naw, that’s OK,” I said, playing along with the joke. “I’ll wait here and enjoy the view.”
“Suit yourself.” Paul put his boots outside the ladder rails. He slid downward, using gloved hands as a drag to slow his fall.
A few cold minutes later, Paul bounced upward with amazing speed, two cameras slung around his neck. He gave me a camera and draped the strap over my head. “Standard point and shoot. Autofocus, autoexposure. Have fun.”
I wanted the pictures badly enough to take my hands off the railing. I clicked a few shots, timing my photos to lulls in the wind. Then I asked Paul, “What’s the other camera for?”
“It takes infrared pictures instead of normal photographs. Catches hot spots. One of those hot spots is always where the blaze started, so we know where the fire originated.”
“Cool,” I said, getting into it. I framed a shot with the infrared camera and a gust of wind shocked me back to reality. I was a long way off the ground with no safety net. I braced a little more carefully with my legs and took some photographs.
“What now?” I asked.
“Back to earth.” Paul twisted around and signaled that we wanted to descend.
The ride down was faster and more disorienting than the ride up. I was relieved to hear the aerial ladder snap into catches atop the fire truck. A minute later, I stepped off the fire engine into a wet street where fire crews were rolling up hoses. City of Paris street cleaners were pushing trash with large green brooms, clearing the boulevard for traffic.
Paul held up the cameras. “I’ll load the images on my computer today.”
“Great. I’d like to see the photos. So far, it’s our only clue.”
Paul Denis walked back to the Interpol car with me. The work day was starting and I found my car wedged between delivery trucks carrying beer to a local deli. I reached in my jacket and pulled out the car keys, dangling from a wood block stained by the oils of many hands. There was a board lined with these wooden keychains at the Interpol office, where I’d checked out the car. Normally I hopped a taxi or took the Metro. Paris traffic was even more congested than downtown Manhattan.
I opened the car door, angling my body in the driver’s seat. My pants clung to the cheap vinyl that comes standard with every government vehicle. Paul Denis shut the door, surprising me with his gentle touch. I rolled the window down and started the car, letting it idle.
Paul was staring at the fire scene with sadness, his cheeks smudged with soot. He took off his bright blue fire hat and the helmet looked almost like a child’s toy in his large hand. We waited each other out, Paul drumming his fingers on the car top and me tapping the steering wheel. I didn’t know what to say so I didn’t say anything.
An ambulance pulled away from the fire scene and turned on its siren. Paul frowned and shouted over the deafening warble. “I’ll call you later, when I get the pictures uploaded.” He waved and headed toward the charred warehouse. Paul Denis glided along the street, his rubber boots squishing through shallow puddles.
I watched Paul and the man-to-woman, first time you meet electricity lingered inside me with a pleasant warmth. But it didn’t last long. My life wasn’t destined for that kind of happiness. I drove away slowly, haunted by Paul’s belief the firefighters were murdered in a deliberate ambush. It was hard for me to imagine someone being so malicious, burning people alive just to get rid of a building. Yet this really wasn’t my case. It belonged to the Paris police, the Surete. Technically, I was just assisting them. Still, I wanted to do something to help Paul Denis and a half dozen firefighters who weren’t going home to their families.
Driving to the Interpol office, I wasn’t able to appreciate the Paris I adored. My tires rumbled over cobblestone streets where every block squeezed a dozen quaint shops with family apartments above. Each street corner held a tobacconist shop or cafe, the heart of its neighborhood society. I was passing the same cafes where Van Gogh and Picasso ate when they painted here. The cobalt blue shopfronts seemed to come from their paintings, but the charming spell was lost on me. I kept seeing the bodies of dead firefighters melted on asphalt like spilled paint.
I flashed on that ugly image several times before I curled off Boulevard St. Germain, spiraling down the ramp to Interpol’s underground parking. The garage’s exhaust fumes smelled like perfume compared to arson smells lingering inside my car. For once I was actually glad to park and step into the gloom of the old basement.
I rode the slow elevator upward, staring through its open cage at cleaning crews running floor polishers. I didn’t see how they could stand that monotonous whining, day after day. The noise was deafening. At the third floor, my shoes squeaked along a waxed hallway until I got to the last office. I touched the door marked “Interpol” and felt surprisingly edgy. The tension wouldn’t go away. Anxiety stuck to me like I’d brushed against a spider web and the web was clinging on my jacket. I had to force myself to open the door and step inside.