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CHAPTER 87

The fireplace in Château Villette’s drawing room was cold, but Collet paced before it nonetheless as he read the faxes from Interpol. Not at all what he expected. André Vernet, according to official records, was a model citizen. No police record – not even a parking ticket. Educated at prep school and the Sorbonne, he had a cum laude degree in international finance. Interpol said Vernet’s name appeared in the newspapers from time to time, but always in a positive light. Apparently the man had helped design the security parameters that kept the Depository Bank of Zurich a leader in the ultramodern world of electronic security. Vernet’s credit card records showed a penchant for art books, expensive wine, and classical CD’s – mostly Brahms – which he apparently enjoyed on an exceptionally high-end stereo system he had purchased several years ago.

Zero , Collet sighed.

The only red flag tonight from Interpol had been a set of fingerprints that apparently belonged to Teabing’s servant. The chief PTS examiner was reading the report in a comfortable chair across the room.

Collet looked over. «Anything?»

The examiner shrugged. «Prints belong to Rémy Legaludec. Wanted for petty crime. Nothing serious. Looks like he got kicked out of university for rewiring phone jacks to get free service… later did some petty theft. Breaking and entering. Skipped out on a hospital bill once for an emergency tracheotomy.» He glanced up, chuckling. «Peanut allergy.»

Collet nodded, recalling a police investigation into a restaurant that had failed to notate on its menu that the chili recipe contained peanut oil. An unsuspecting patron had died of anaphylactic shock at the table after a single bite.

«Legaludec is probably a live-in here to avoid getting picked up.» The examiner looked amused. «His lucky night.»

Collet sighed. «All right, you better forward this info to Captain Fache.»

The examiner headed off just as another PTS agent burst into the living room. «Lieutenant! We found something in the barn.»

From the anxious look on the agent’s face, Collet could only guess. «A body.» «No, sir. Something more…» He hesitated. «Unexpected.» Rubbing his eyes, Collet followed the agent out to the barn. As they entered the musty, cavernous space, the agent motioned toward the center of the room, where a wooden ladder now ascended high into the rafters, propped against the ledge of a hayloft suspended high above them. «That ladder wasn’t there earlier,» Collet said.» No, sir. I set that up. We were dusting for prints near the Rolls when I saw the ladder lying on the floor. I wouldn’t have given it a second thought except the rungs were worn and muddy. This ladder gets regular use. The height of the hayloft matched the ladder, so I raised it and climbed up to have a look.»

Collet’s eyes climbed the ladder’s steep incline to the soaring hayloft. Someone goes up thereregularly? From down here, the loft appeared to be a deserted platform, and yet admittedly most of it was invisible from this line of sight.

A senior PTS agent appeared at the top of the ladder, looking down. «You’ll definitely want to see this, Lieutenant,» he said, waving Collet up with a latex-gloved hand.

Nodding tiredly, Collet walked over to the base of the old ladder and grasped the bottom rungs. The ladder was an antique tapered design and narrowed as Collet ascended. As he neared the top, Collet almost lost his footing on a thin rung. The barn below him spun. Alert now, he moved on, finally reaching the top. The agent above him reached out, offering his wrist. Collet grabbed it and made the awkward transition onto the platform.

«It’s over there,» the PTS agent said, pointing deep into the immaculately clean loft. «Only one set of prints up here. We’ll have an ID shortly.»

Collet squinted through the dim light toward the far wall. What the hell? Nestled against the far wall sat an elaborate computer workstation – two tower CPUs, a flat-screen video monitor with speakers, an array of hard drives, and a multichannel audio console that appeared to have its own filtered power supply.

Why in the world would anyone work all the way up here? Collet moved toward the gear. «Have you examined the system?»

«It’s a listening post.»

Collet spun. «Surveillance?»

The agent nodded. «Very advanced surveillance.» He motioned to a long project table strewn with electronic parts, manuals, tools, wires, soldering irons, and other electronic components. «Someone clearly knows what he’s doing. A lot of this gear is as sophisticated as our own equipment. Miniature microphones, photoelectric recharging cells, high-capacity RAM chips. He’s even got some of those new nano drives.»

Collet was impressed.

«Here’s a complete system,» the agent said, handing Collet an assembly not much larger than a pocket calculator. Dangling off the contraption was a foot-long wire with a stamp-sized piece of wafer-thin foil stuck on the end. «The base is a high-capacity hard disk audio recording system with rechargeable battery. That strip of foil at the end of the wire is a combination microphone and photoelectric recharging cell.»

Collet knew them well. These foil-like, photocell microphones had been an enormous breakthrough a few years back. Now, a hard disk recorder could be affixed behind a lamp, for example, with its foil microphone molded into the contour of the base and dyed to match. As long as the microphone was positioned such that it received a few hours of sunlight per day, the photo cells would keep recharging the system. Bugs like this one could listen indefinitely.

«Reception method?» Collet asked.

The agent signaled to an insulated wire that ran out of the back of the computer, up the wall, through a hole in the barn roof. «Simple radio wave. Small antenna on the roof.»

Collet knew these recording systems were generally placed in offices, were voice-activated to save hard disk space, and recorded snippets of conversation during the day, transmitting compressed audio files at night to avoid detection. After transmitting, the hard drive erased itself and prepared to do it all over again the next day.

Collet’s gaze moved now to a shelf on which were stacked several hundred audio cassettes, all labeled with dates and numbers. Someone has been very busy.He turned back to the agent. «Doyou have any idea what target is being bugged?»

«Well, Lieutenant,» the agent said, walking to the computer and launching a piece of software. «It’s the strangest thing…»

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