The door to the bar had hardly closed when the barman picked up his telephone and dialled a number he had written down on a scrap of paper that was wedged between two spirit bottles. He heard it ring four times before it was answered. The voice was gruff and abrupt, "yes ?" said was the only word that was uttered in greeting.
"Hello ? This is Leon. I have some information", the barman replied.
"Leon ? Leon who ? I don't know any Leon", said the man sounding angry and agitated.
"Leon from the bar by the harbour. You said to call you if I saw heard of anybody asking after Messeuier Rousseau."
There was an audible change of tone, the man at the other end of the telephone sounded interested now, "and have you Leon ?"
"Yes, just this night. You also said you would pay for such information" he added, his voice sounding as if he were trying to wheedle the money he was promised from a reluctant debtor, which in reality was just the case.
"Why don't you tell me what you know and I will decide its value ?"
Leon was outraged, "What! You take me for an imbecile! If I tell you that, how do I know that you will pay me anything at all ?
"Leon, Leon" the voice chided, "Leon my dear friend. You claim to have some information for me. If you tell me what it is and it is good, I will pay you. If you refuse to tell me know, well then my associates will have to call in person to collect that information, and in that case I am afraid there will be no payment." As he spoke his voice became to icy cold that Leon could swear he felt his own telephone receiver drop in temperature.
"Yes, yes of course", Leon blustered "how silly of me. A man came into the bar tonight and sat for a very long time. He did not drink very much at all."
"Yes, and...?", said the impatient voice.
"One of my girls began to talk to him but he would have nothing to do with her. He told her he was looking for Pascal Rousseau."
"What did she tell him ?", asked the voice with sudden concern.
"The girl ? Nothing. She knows nothing, but there were some legionnaires at the next table who started a fight the moment he said the name to the girl."
"So, this man ? He was French ?"
"No. He was an American."
Now the voice sounded very interested indeed, "an American ? Are you certain ?"
"Oh yes. One of the legionnaires was also American and I heard him talking first and then translating what he said to the others."
"When was this ? After they beat the shit out of him ? That sounds a very strange story."
"Stranger than that. The American beat the crap out of the three legionnaires. That was when he made them all sit down so he could explain what he was doing."
"And you heard all of this ?"
"Every word. I think it is all lies. Messeuier Rousseau would never do the terrible things this man claimed he had done."
"What things would they be Leon ?", the voice sounded icy again, dangerous. Leon was frightened - frightened of the man he had called and frightened of what he knew.
"The American claimed that Messeuier Rousseau murdered his parents. Lies, all of it !"
"What did he look like, this American, the voice pressed, ignoring Leon's protests.
"He was tall, maybe two metres, but he kept a kind of hunched look to make him seem shorter than he really was. I would say he was around one hundred kilos, lean and muscular. He had dark brown hair and his face looked much too old, if you know what I mean. I reckon he was no more than twenty-five years old but he looked ten years more in his eyes. When he fought! Sacre bleu! The American legionnaire asked him how he had learned to do such things."
"What happened after the fight?"
"I have just explained. He told them his story and they said for him to come back tomorrow, or rather tonight. Already it is tomorrow!"
"Okay Leon. You have done well. You shall have your money but you will speak of this to no-one. Is that understood ?"
"Oh yes, but of course. Already I forget", Leon replied hurridly.
"Forget what ?"
"What ? I have no idea."
"Excellent", said the voice and the line went dead as he hung up.
Nathan walked back to his cheap pension, back through the stinking docks and along a maze of narrow unlit side-streets. Every few hundred yards he was accosted by a prostitute touting for business or a dealer offering dope. He passed bars even seedier than the one that he had left and could smell the beer and stale bodies, out there on the street. There were very few street lights and sometimes a brief flare of light appeared in the oily enveloping blackness that was like a shroud, as a match was struck, a cigarette lit. On one street a local ‘street tough' blocked his way, challenging him, daring him to even try to make his way past. Nathan stood almost nose to nose with the sunken pock-marked face of the youth, who looked into Nathan's eyes for a second and then moved aside without another word. Had he not done so, the youth thought that just then he had looked into the eyes of somebody who would snuff him out like a candle, and on that night he was right. Once back in his room, Nathan turned his mind again to the mysterious Swiss business card that he had only identified as such, a day or two ago. It had been his intention to deal with his family's murder first, and then unravel the mystery of who he was later. Not for the first time he felt torn between the two tasks, but then he became resolute once more, who he was could wait just a little longer. As he fell asleep, the neon from the bar-sign across the street illuminated his room like a green strobe.
The next night, Nathan was back in the bar by the harbour. This time when he entered the barman opened up with a tirade of rapid French which Nathan understood enough of to know that the man did not want a repeat of last night, and the smashing up of his furniture. Nathan bought a glass of Stella Lager and sat in the empty alcove, waiting patiently. An hour passed and finally Nathan was obliged to refill his glass, to the derision of the barman. The same skinny girl from the night before tried her luck a second time, but she got no further this time. After another thirty minutes, Nathan was getting restless, when the door almost flew open with a loud crash as it hit the wall, and this time five legionnaires burst in. Three of them were the three he had met before, but Nathan did not know the other two. It was obvious that they had already been drinking heavily as they staggered across to the dark alcove. Two chairs were taken from a nearby table so that they could all sit around in a semicircle, with Nathan at its apex. Then the drinking began in earnest. The legionnaires began to sing the Legion songs, and almost surreally, the five men actually sounded very pleasant to the ear as they all sang with their hearts as well as their mouths. The American took time to prompt Nathan with the unfamiliar words, and as more beer was drunk, he found himself drawn into the camaraderie of the Legion, singing as loudly as they did, and drinking far more than he had intended.
The night went on, deep into the morning of the next day and still they drank, sang and regaled each other with tales of battles that no doubt they had all been in, had all heard a hundred times before. Outside, the night walkers were slinking back to their hovels, like vampires hiding from the dawn that was fast approaching. At last Nathan said in a very slurred voice that he hardly recognised as his own "so come on. Tell me about Rousseau!"
"Ah, Rousseau! You still want to know about him eh, my American friend ?", replied one of the men that Nathan had not met before.
Nathan nodded his head sagely in that deadly serious way that only a drunk can manage "but of course ! Its why I came. Tell me about him, and then I will get us some more beers!"
"Spoken like a true legionnaire! Okay. So why are you so sure that this fellow named Rousseau is your man eh ?"
Nathan reached into his pocket and withdrew the four photographs that he had left of the ones he took on that night a lifetime ago. He struggled to focus on them, but selected the one he wanted and showed it to his questioner "this, this is Rousseau", he said slamming the picture down on the table as if it were a winning poker hand. The Legionnaire picked it up and then grabbed the candle from the table so that he could illuminate the dark image.
"Where did you get this ?" he asked, his voice suddenly serious.
"I took it myself."
"You ? You took it!" the man exclaimed, "so more importantly, when did you take it ?"
Suddenly, Nathan lost all the effects of the alcohol and as if a switch had been turned he felt completely sober, and in a clear but low voice he replied, "I took that picture a few minutes after my parents were killed, and these too", he added throwing down the rest of the photographs. They were of no use to him anymore, every detail was burned into his brain. The
Legionnaire looked at the other pictures for a few minutes and it seemed to Nathan that he too had suddenly discovered that he was not as drunk as he thought he was - despite the vast amount that he had drunk. His eyes narrowed and his face assumed a hard look when he spoke again, "Okay. One of these other men I recognise also, this one", he pointed to another photograph, "his name is Lukas Shafer. A very bad man indeed. If you are going to take him on you need to be as careful as you like or he will kill you in a second. You know, this is a big problem now. The Legion has a code of honour. We are not murderers. We do not make war on women and innocent men. Yet you show me a picture of a man I once fought with, a man who lived by the same code that all legionnaires live by, and die by sometimes its true, and you ask me to believe he did this terrible thing ? If Rousseau was there with that German bastard, and your pictures say that is so, then I have to believe what you have told us, but it is too terrible to hear."
"So you'll tell me where to find him ?"
The man seemed to think for a long time, as if he was struggling to accept the evidence that lay before him. At last he gave a long sigh, "it makes no difference. You would have found him easily enough. Rousseau injured his leg on a parachute jump and after that he was never the same man. In the end he left the Legion and returned to his family's vineyard. When he got back there it was almost a ruin, but with his own hands he rebuilt it all, stone by stone, vine by vine. Now he has a vineyard that many are envious of - in the summer he runs tours of the vines and the winery. Go to Bergerac my friend. His place is about twenty kilometres north of there. If you get a chance before you kill him, tell him that Gaston sends his regards."
Nathan listened. So near, just a few miles away now. "Thank you Gaston. It will be the last thing he hears", said Nathan as he got up to leave. Gaston extended a calloused hand and gripped Nathan's in a strong handshake, "as we say in France, Bon Chance!".
Nathan left the bar, the cold of the harbour hitting him like a wall of ice. Somehow he found his way back to the pension, the dim light of dawn helping him on his way. At least he was not accosted by any of the low-lives that would normally own these dark and dangerous avenues. Had a lucky thief chanced upon Nathan during his journey back to the pension, he would have rejoiced with the discovery of Nathan's Rolex wristwatch - all the riches he had left in the world now, because Nathan was in no fit state to stop anybody. He staggered up the steps to his room, tripping over them as many times as he ascended. Fitting his key into a tiny lock that would nor stay still was a nightmare, but he did it eventually, falling into his room as the door sprang open. He kicked out with a foot that just caught the edge of the door, slamming it hard, and then fell unconscious to the bared wooden floor, snoring deeply.
When he awoke it was dark. Never in his life had he felt as he did then. His mouth was dry and his tongue seemed to be several sizes larger. Inside his head searing white hot bolts of pain stabbed at his eyeballs and it seemed to Nathan that a hundred blacksmiths were pounding their anvils in his head. He dragged himself to his feet and everything in the room began to move. As he stood up, his stomach performed a somersault which sent him rushing to the smelly toilet that, thankfully, came with the room. He was violently sick, then retching streamers of thick mucus that made him feel even worse. Nathan put his head under the shower tap and tried to slake his raging thirst but the odd angle of his head just made him feel worse. In the end he gave up and fell fully clothed into the cold spray. He did not even try to stand up again until he was shivering with the cold and wet right through. He felt wretched. After an hour or more, Nathan got to his feet again. This time he managed to stay upright and turned off the shower tap. He pulled of his sodden clothes and fell naked onto the bed, where he slept again until morning. It was the warming rays of a low winter sun streaming into his window that awoke him again.
His mouth was still dry, parched even but the pain in his head was gone and was hungry too. Some strong coffee and a good breakfast and he knew he would soon be his old self. There was a rusting shower in his room, the plastic curtain was held up with a few turns of wire. The shower base was filthy with ground in dirt but Nathan stood under the lime-scale loaded shower head and managed to persuade a sad trickle of cold water to fall over him. Chilled in the exposed pipes by a night frost, the water hit him with a shock, but after a while he felt invigorated and promised himself to never get into that state again. After he had dried and dressed, Nathan left the pension on search of an early morning cafe that would serve him breakfast. His money was running low and he reckoned he would soon need to return the rented Audi, although what he was going to do after that he was not so sure about. Inevitably, he decided that he would need to see if he could pawn his precious wristwatch, but how much would that fetch ? Maybe he could find some work and build up some money that way, but it might take him months, years even. Then there was the Irishman. One job would be all he needed to do. What the hell difference would it make anyway? If it wasn't him then another would do whatever was needed. With all these thoughts jumbled in a head still hazy about the night before, Nathan picked his way through the narrow streets and alleys. He had no idea that he was being followed - he was so lost in his own thoughts. Two mistakes in less than a day, but they would teach him a lesson he would never forget.
The handcart shot out of a side alley, right in front of Nathan, who crashed headlong into it. The cart overturned and Nathan fell down with it, a tangle of arms, legs and bundles of fire wood that had been stacked on the old cart. Before he could get up, a hard booted foot caught him dead centre in his groin and he curled up instinctively, the pain agonising. Another foot hit the back of his head making him dizzy and see bright lights flickering in his eyes. Then some kind of club - more likely a larger piece of wood from the cart struck him and he tasted blood in his mouth. The blows seemed to come from all directions and Nathan could not even get to his knees to try and defend himself at least a little. He was dimly aware of his expensive watch being torn from his wrist where he foolishly was wearing it, perhaps for the last time he had thought but had not expected to part with it quite this way. More frenzied blows, a ran if them one after the other, and then hands that ran through his pockets taking everything. Just before he passed into the release of unconscieness, he heard something hissed more than whispered, into one bleeding ear, "stay away from Pascal Rousseau or next time you will be dead", and then mercifully, everything went black.
When he awoke again Nathan panicked for a second or two, feeling himself somehow restrained, but then waves of pain swept over him, engulfing him in agony and all he could do was to let out a low moan. He could only open one eye, the other was so puffy and swollen that he could not open it at all. Nathan could see a tough looking young man standing beside the bed that he realised he was laying in. He could smell the crisp whiteness of the spotless sheets, although the mattress was none too soft. The man he could see was wearing a white short sleeve shirt, immaculately pressed. On his head he was wearing a spotless Kepi and looking at him, Nathan realised that this man was a Legionnaire. ‘In that case', thought Nathan, ‘where the hell am I ?'. He managed to croak out the most unoriginal question that the Legionnaire had ever heard, "where am I ?", and even tried to grin as he said it.
"Ah, you are back with us Mister McCrae", was the reply.
Nathan's throat felt dry and constricted, his tongue seemed to be swollen and he was finding it difficult to stay awake, even for a few minutes. "Water, can you get some water please ?", he asked. The Legionnaire poured a glass from a jug that rested on a low cabinet by the bedside, out of Nathan's sight unless he sat up. "Here, drink this and then we will talk", he said.
Nathan took a few sips and felt the relief in his sore throat although swallowing was still a difficulty.
"Where am I ? How did I get here ?", he said as some of the sweet tasting water ran down his chin.
"You are in The Legion hospital in Aubagne."
"Aubagne ? Where the hell is that ? How did I get here ?"
"You have been very lucky. You were in a bar in Marseille, I understand. The Legionnaires that you were drinking with found you a few hours after you had left. At first they thought you were dead, but as we see, happily you are not. They brought you back here to the barracks at Aubagne. It is about fifteen kilometres from Marseille."
"How long have I been here ?"
"Just over a week. We were going to have you transferred to a civilian hospital if you had not come round soon, but then, here you are."
"Those guys, they must have saved my life. Can I see them ?", asked Nathan as he began to realise just how lucky he had been.
"Alas no. They have all shipped out and will not be back for many months now. However, if you are well enough, the Commandant would like to speak to you ?"
"Yeah, it hurts like hell but I'll manage. I can't move one leg...?" said Nathan, concerned about the nature of his injuries.
"Yes, one leg was broken. We have reset it and put it in plaster, as is your other arm. Whoever did this to you was very thorough. You are very lucky to be alive. Your other eye will be okay too but it is bandaged for protection. I will fetch the Commandant."
A few minutes later the Camp Commandant came into the sick bay. He looked every inch as fit as the Medic- Legionnaire who had brought him. A tall thin man with deep blue eyes and short cropped sandy coloured hair. He looked to be in his forties to Nathan, but he also looked as fit as any twenty year old. His uniform was absolutely immaculate, not so much as a hair out of place, but when he spoke his voice was a rich baritone that seemed somehow out of place in that honed body. "So, Mister McCrae. You made it. I am very pleased. How are you feeling ?"
"Like I got ran over, twice!"
"Hmm, I don't doubt it. That was some beating you took and yet I am told you bested three of my men the night before ?"
Nathan grinned again, "maybe I got lucky, and maybe they got drunk."
"Even drunk a Legionnaire would be hard to beat, let alone three at once. Very impressive. How did you learn to fight like that ?"
"My dad taught me some - his father was a Marine in World War two and taught him. Then the bodyguards taught me a whole lot more." As soon as he said he Nathan winced at his mistake, but it was too late now.
"Your bodyguards, did you say ? Why did you have the need of bodyguards ?"
"I can't really tell you that. I hope you will understand. When will I be able to get out of here, Commandant ?"
"Six weeks, maybe more, but somehow I don't think you will be one for staying in bed."
Nathan smiled his agreement at that. "I hope you can pass on my gratitude to those men of yours ?"
"Of course. Tell me, have you ever considered The Legion ? A fine man like you, and so skilled already. For you it would be a holiday, no ?"
Nathan shook his head, wincing as he did so, "no, its not for me I am afraid. I have some unfinished business to attend to."
"Yes, I know. Pascal Rousseau ? This is most disturbing, you see Rousseau is a very highly regarded Legionnaire. Oh yes, he no longer serves but once one has done so, then The Legion is always there. Now I am to believe that one of the finest men I ever had under my command is a murderer of Women ? Your parents no ?"
"That is true, I swear it!", said Nathan with a seething hatred he could not control.
"My men told me they saw a photograph of Rousseau that you say was taken by yourself on the night of the killing. They say that they believe your story. I don't know who you really are, but I am quite sure you are not Shelby McCrae...or and Rodger Thompson for that matter."
For a moment Nathan was puzzled because still groggy from the week he had been in a near-coma, he was not thinking as fast as he did normally, "Rodger Thompson?"
"Yes. We found a US passport in one shoe and a UK passport in the other. Interesting don't you think ?"
Nathan was alarmed, "you won't call in the Police will you ?", he said trying to push himself up from the bed now.
The Commandant reached out a hand to reassure him, "relax. You are safe here."
Then Nathan realised he was not wearing his watch, in fact he was not wearing anything at all. "My things...where are they ?"
"Your things ? There was nothing. Just the blood soaked clothes you were found in and the two passports. What else should there have been ?"
"I had a Rolex watch, and the last of my money too. The keys to my car..."
"A Rolex ? Bodyguards that taught you to fight better than my own Legionnaires. You are really a very interesting person, Mister McCrae. Now I am afraid that all you have are some pants and a shirt from our own stores here, but it will be some time before you need to worry about whether or not they fit you."
"You are being very considerate, Commandant. I wish I could repay you but now it seems I have nothing left at all."
It was the Commandant's turn to smile, "you could have joined us, but no, I see that such a thing is not possible for you. My men respect you for what you have done, although they did not tell me everything I am sure. So Rousseau has become a killer. He spoils the name of The Legion and all we stand for. When you are recovered, I wish you ‘Bon Chance', that you complete you debt of honour. My men believed you, and that is good enough for me."
As the Commandant walked away, Nathan thought it was strange that for the second time in a week or two, he had been wished ‘Bon Chance', in this country. He had lost his South African identity and had no money at all, but at least he had a bed and food until he recovered. Then what ? Over the next few weeks Nathan had plenty of time to consider his options. He was quite sure this time that Rousseau had somehow been warned, but how ? Nobody knew who he was or what he was doing? Well obviously somebody had put a few things together so from now on he would have to tread very carefully indeed. Without money though, he was going nowhere. He could not even use his US passport for fear that the rental company would be after him for the missing Audi he had rented. If he was not careful, that Commandant would have him signed up in no time. What a mess!
It was another month before Nathan was able to leave his bed. There was no conventional physiotherapy to be had at the barracks, but the well equipped gymnasium was more than up to the task. With some guidance from the PT instructors, Nathan applied his will to mending his body and worked as hard, if not harder, as the recruits he saw undergoing daily gruelling sessions. A full month of solid training later, and Nathan was back at the peak of his fitness, and it was time to move on. He was going to burn his US passport, but at the last moment decided to keep it, knowing a man in London who could make good use of it, again. The Commandant was more than generous when Nathan was ready to leave, giving him sufficient money to be able to get back to England, which was where he had decided to go, for the time being. The mystery that lay in Switzerland and dealing with Rousseau would have to wait a little longer, as would the Germans, but their time would surely come. Nathan promised to repay very penny of the money and care he had been given by The Legion, and the Commandant knew that he would. He would dearly have loved to know who the man really was, almost as much as he would have liked to see him parading on his square, but it was not to be.
Suddenly, money became very important to Nathan by its very scarcity. It was not so very long ago that he had thought nothing of chartering a jet to cross the Atlantic and now he had barely enough in his pocket for a train ticket. That would all change again very soon, of that he was quite certain. He hitchhiked right up through France to the channel port of Calais, sleeping rough under hedges and in empty barns when he failed to get a ride. At the bustling port he bought the cheapest ferry ticket possible, foot passenger one-way, and crossed the channel with his UK passport. He arrived back in England at the port of Dover, sometime in late April, 1994. Some of the trees were already in bud, hazy green auras against the skyline of the white chalk cliffs, and Spring blossoms made the air smell sweet. A lot was happening in the world that year; ex-President Richard Nixon had died, a Mexican racketeer named Juan Losada was acquitted over the tragic death of the kidnapped daughter of an American billionaire and Republican Senator, Zsa Zsa Gabor filed for bankruptcy and Michael Moorer beat Evander Holyfield in twleve rounds for the world heavyweight boxing title, were amongst many other stories to hit the world headlines. Nathan read yesterday's headlines in a discarded newspaper he had picked up on the boat, not yet aware that one of those random events would have a cataclysmic effect upon his own life and the mission he had embarked upon. The only thing that he knew for sure as he stood at the side of the busy main road with his thumb extended in the hope of a ride was the place he was now heading for.