The Hangman’s Companion — excerpt

Chapter 1

Pont d’Iéna, Paris, Sunday, May 17th

The fight under the bridge at the foot of the Eiffel Tower turned deadly when the Frenchman kicked the urn out of the American’s grasp. The pewter vessel shot into the air and smashed against a bridge support, leaving a dark stain there and scattering the remainder of the ashes of the American’s late wife into the Seine.

The Frenchman, Thierry Duchamp, an elite athlete, twenty-eight years old, was more than a little drunk and had been having a heated argument with a shapely blonde. Her makeup was smeared and she all but spilled out of her crimson silk blouse. The American, Glen Kinnard, forty-nine, a retired cop with a long list of excessive force complaints, had been standing on the walkway under the bridge. He’d been agonizing over whether to honor his wife’s last request, when the noisy French couple made their stumbling approach.

Kinnard was bone tired after a long, turbulent flight from Chicago. He’d had to stand in a block-long line to clear customs. Then he had to make several detours to exit Charles de Gaulle Airport because of some sort of minor terrorist scare. He hadn’t slept in thirty-six hours and he was jet-lagged to hell and back.

On top of all that, he wasn’t a patient guy even when he was fresh.

The only thing that had kept him from telling the raucous couple to show a little respect and shut the fuck up was that the French had been surprisingly kind to him since he’d arrived.

It had started off with the taxi driver leaning against his cab at the airport. He was a tough-faced little mutt, looked like he had a glass eye, was smoking a butt that smelled like he’d fished it out of a toilet. But he saw the pain on Kinnard’s face, took note of the urn the ex-cop had taken out of his suitcase. Saw how Kinnard cradled the urn like a baby. He nailed the situation at a glance.

Someone near and dear had died.

He held the door open for Kinnard like he was driving a limo not a cab. He tucked his fare’s suitcase into the trunk, and slid behind the wheel. Looking over his shoulder at Kinnard, he even spoke English after a fashion.

“My regrets, m’sieur,” the cabbie said. “Where may I deliver you?”

Kinnard gave the guy the name of the hotel where his daughter had booked a room for him. “The Hotel Saint Jacques.” He provided the address on the Rue de Rivoli.

“I know this place. We travel with all haste.”

The cabbie wasn’t kidding; he put the pedal down. Slalomed through traffic like a pro. Still had time to glance in the mirror at the urn Kinnard held close.

The American knew just what the driver was wondering: Who’d kicked? Kinnard surprised himself by answering the unspoken question. “My wife. She asked me to bring her home.”

“Elle était française?” the driver asked.

“Yeah,” Kinnard said. “Born right here in Paris.”

The driver turned the meter off. Said the ride was on him.

Kinnard nodded his thanks. He looked out the window at the city and told the man, “The shame of it is I never got to see the place with her.”

When they arrived at the hotel, the driver hopped out, retrieved Kinnard’s bag and had a quick conversation with the doorman, who held the door for Kinnard, and then passed the word to the young woman working behind the front desk. She, in turn, spoke to a guy in a sharp suit.

If he’d had the energy, Kinnard would have been embarrassed.

He wasn’t looking to come off as some Weepy Willie.

“Your name, m’sieur?” the young woman asked.

He gave it, watched her find it on a list in front of her. She turned to look at the guy in the suit and pointed the tip of her pen to a space on what Kinnard took to be a diagram of the rooms in the hotel. The guy in the suit nodded. She turned to Kinnard.

“We are sorry to say, m’sieur, all the rooms of the type you requested have been filled; we will have to offer you a suite, at no additional charge, if that is satisfactory.”

Kinnard knew they were kidding him, but he played along, grateful.
“That’ll be great,” he said.

He signed the register and the young woman gave him her card. “If there is anything we can do to make your stay more…consoling, please let me know.”

Kinnard looked at the card. The young woman’s name was Emilie. Same as his daughter.

“Merci,” he said.

Chapter 2

The suite was cozy by American standards but stylish down to the smallest detail. Suzanne would have loved the place. He would have loved to see the smile on her face had they stepped through the door together. But he had always been too busy being a cop to go to Paris, and when he hadn’t been busy they’d gone places he wanted to go, Vegas or Miami. Suzi knew better than to push too hard to try to change his mind. He’d raised his hand to her often enough.

Once too often finally…and she’d divorced him.

His daughter had cheered her mother’s long overdue departure.

He’d never expected to hear from Suzanne again. Certainly not after five years without a word. He almost didn’t recognize her voice when she called. Her accent seemed to have faded, become more American, and she sounded old. Good reason for that. She told him she was dying, and would like to see him once more before she went.

The last thing Suzi was looking for was a reconciliation. She was thinking of Emilie. She didn’t want their daughter to be left without a parent when she died. She pleaded with Kinnard to find a way to make peace with Emilie.

At the age of twenty-four, though, Emilie considered herself to be her own woman, and the last person she wanted back in her life was the prick of a father who had made her mother’s life hell. If giving him another chance was what Maman was asking, then she was asking too much. She told Suzanne so to her face, with Kinnard in the room.

He saw the fear in his daughter’s eyes. She thought he might go off on her, knock her around good, though he never had, not in his worst days. When her father failed to meet Emilie’s expectation of brutality, she voiced a new suspicion.

The sonofabitch was after her mother’s money. After leaving Kinnard, Suzanne had started a small, successful travel agency. Emilie was her strong right hand. The business was going to her.

Kinnard turned to Suzi and asked, “Em’s your sole heir, right?

From her bed, Suzanne nodded.

“So let’s put the money question to rest,” he said. “Sign everything you have over to her right now. I’ll cover all your expenses, medical and otherwise. You need to see a doctor, I’ll take you. You need anything, I’ll get it for you. Help any damn way I can.”

Emilie had no doubt Kinnard would keep his word. To spite her.

Suzanne, though, was moved to tears. She put a hand over her mouth. She knew what she looked like. The chemo and the radiation had ravaged her. Her attempts to make herself presentable before her ex-husband arrived had only made her weep.

The damage the cancer had done to Suzanne almost made Kinnard sob, too. All the more so because it made him think of how he’d once marred her beauty. If another man had inflicted such hurt on her, he would have…

He would have to take care of her as best he could because there was no way to get revenge on a fatal illness. Thing was, as haggard and drawn as Suzanne looked, he could look past the present moment and still see her as beautiful. Her eyes were as blue as ever, and the irrepressible spirit that lay behind them was untouched by the cancer.

Suzanne wanted Emilie to have her father in her life. If that required her to forgive Kinnard for all he’d done to her, and do so in Emilie’s presence, she would do it gladly.

She extended her hand to Kinnard.

“Be at peace with me,” she said.

He took her hand, and now he couldn’t keep his eyes from glistening with tears.

Seeing her parents look lovingly at each other made Emilie gag.

She stormed out, telling her mother to sell the business and give the money to charity.

Emilie might have been able to maintain her anger if Suzanne hadn’t confounded her doctors’ predictions. They’d given her a month to live, two at the most. But she hung on for a year. It was a hellish year, but Kinnard never wavered in his commitment. Emilie tried to keep her contempt for Kinnard stoked, accusing him of being too damn late in trying to act like a decent human being. But he’d shouldered most of the load Emilie had carried, giving her time to have a life of her own. He was there through the worst of it, times when Emilie had to leave her mother’s room because it hurt so bad to see how she was suffering.

None of Kinnard’s ministrations, though, got Emilie to discontinue her verbal abuse.

While he never said a harsh word to her.

Suzanne was the one who knocked Emilie for a loop.

She asked her daughter to be the maid of honor at her wedding.

Glen Kinnard and Suzanne LaBelle were married for the second time one week before the bride succumbed to her affliction. She lay in bed throughout the ceremony, but clearly responded, “I do,” when asked if she took this man…

Other than the judge her father secured to perform the ceremony, Emilie was the only witness present. She helped her mother place the ring on her father’s finger. She kissed both her parents when the exchange of vows was completed.

Suzanne asked only one thing of Emilie: “Be kind.”

Of her husband, she asked, “When I go, please take me home.”

Chapter 3

Kinnard tried to sleep, laying fully clothed atop the comforter on the small French bed. But he had too many demons dancing in his head to get more than a few minutes of rest at any one time. Emilie, from the front desk, called to ask if he would like to have dinner in his room. She could have the hotel’s chef prepare almost anything he would like. He thanked her but declined the offer. He asked not to be disturbed before midday tomorrow.

At two a.m. he rolled off the bed, took a shower, and made a pot of coffee using the machine provided in the suite. He dressed in fresh clothes, dark shirt, pants, and windbreaker. Rubber soled shoes. Feeling the caffeine jolt of the coffee, he picked up the urn with Suzanne’s ashes from the table next to the bed and left the suite.

If there was anyone on duty at the front desk, that person was not at his post when Kinnard passed through the lobby. He had to open the door to the street for himself, just as he’d hoped he would. It was two-thirty now. Early Sunday morning. Still late Saturday night to any revelers making a last stop on their rounds.

Kinnard looked right and left along the length of the Rue du 29 Juillet, on which the hotel’s side entrance faced. No pedestrians were visible in either direction. He turned left and walked toward the Rue de Rivoli. He waited in the shadows at the corner of the block as a single car passed, neither the driver nor the passenger looking in his direction. He crossed the thoroughfare and entered the Tuileries Gardens.

It was only after he was well into the parklike setting and was walking in the shadows of a stand of trees that he thought he should have paused to read the signs at the gardens’ entrance. He might have learned if the place was off-limits overnight, the way many American parks were. He didn’t think there was much of a threat that terrorists would attempt to blow up the shrubbery. But the Louvre was just down the street. Even he hadn’t been able to miss the place on the taxi ride to the hotel. If some jihadi SOBs wanted to rub the infidels noses in how corrupt their culture was, they could hide out in the trees and start launching rockets or mortar rounds at the famous museum.

That possibility had to occur to the French cops, Kinnard thought.

Had to.

Made Kinnard glad he was wearing dark clothes and running shoes.

He might not have destruction in mind, but he was a man with a mission.

He moved deeper into the trees, picked up his pace.

He had deliberately failed to inquire if it was legal to dump someone’s ashes in the Seine. He didn’t want to know so he could claim ignorance, if worse came to worse. Of course, the river flowed 480 miles. He could have picked a quiet spot out in the countryside somewhere, deposited Suzanne’s ashes and no one would ever have been the wiser. But Suzanne had been a Parisienne and as far as Kinnard was concerned there was only one place to fulfill her wish.

Right where the Seine flowed past the Eiffel Tower.

Chapter 4

The walkway under the Pont d’Iéna struck him as the perfect spot. The overarching bridge gave it a sense of privacy. A terrace of shallow steps led down to the water’s edge. A support pillar ten feet out in the river shielded him from the view of anyone on the opposite bank. All he had to do to honor Suzanne’s last wish was to crouch, perhaps kneel, open the urn and let the ashes swirl away with the current. They’d flow out from under the bridge right past the Eiffel Tower.

Only thing was, Kinnard just couldn’t let his wife’s remains go.

The last year he’d spent taking care of Suzanne had been the most meaningful of his life. He’d felt closer to her than when they had first started dating. It was the only time he’d ever cared about anyone without thinking about himself first. His selflessness had been apparent even to Emilie. In the minutes after Suzanne had passed, he’d thanked Em for playing along, pretending she’d reconciled with her father.

“I know giving me that kiss must have cost you,” he said.

She shrugged. “Just trying to do what Mom asked.”

“It’s all right now. She’s gone. You can stop acting like I’m not a total asshole.”

Emilie studied him. Thought about how he’d changed over the past year.

“Maybe total is too strong.” She smiled when she said that.

Almost made Kinnard cry again right there.

Emilie’s forgiveness inspired him that night under the Pont d’Iéna.

Maybe the thing to do, he thought, was hold on to Suzi’s ashes until he croaked. Then have Em bring the two of them back to the Seine and—No, he’d leave Suzi’s remains in Paris, buy a space for them at some cemetery or something. That way, Em would have to carry only his urn with her. She could bring their ashes to where he was standing right now. Open the two urns, let their ashes mix in the air and flow away in the river.

Together forever. He’d make sure to treat Em right, live like a monk, do good works, make people forget the old Glen Kinnard. He was sure his daughter would honor his request.

The idea pleased Kinnard right down the soul he never knew he had. He didn’t know how long he stood beneath the Pont d’Iéna lost in thought, but he was certain what brought him out of his reverie. An angry female voice. Screeching in French.

He looked to his left and saw a young couple approaching. The guy was having trouble keeping his balance as they walked. The woman’s voice was loud; the man’s was low. The man was slurring his words; the woman was bellowing hers. The woman put a foot wrong, lost her balance and started windmilling her arms. She tottered toward the water with a shriek.

The man caught a wrist and yanked her back. For a second, Kinnard thought they were going to kiss and make up, be on their way and leave him in peace. Only the guy didn’t kiss her, he said something too quiet for Kinnard to hear. Whatever he said, it wasn’t well received. The woman replied with a shrill rant. Her voice was enough to make Kinnard’s ears ache.

Back home, on the job, he would have taken a billy club to both of them.

But he remembered where he was and how well he’d been treated up until now.

The Frenchman, though, had heard enough from the woman.

He finally raised his voice. “Mon Dieu, ferme la bouche!” Jesus, shut up!

Mademoiselle wasn’t of a mind to turn down the volume. She planted her feet wide, put her left hand on her hip, and vigorously waved her right index finger under the guy’s nose. She kept that up, Kinnard thought, things were going to take a definite turn for the worse.

As if to confirm his expectation, the guy’s face grew tight with anger and he began to shake his head back and forth with increasing vigor. Kinnard was sure he was about to clock the broad: break her nose, blacken her eyes, knock out a few teeth.

The prospect of which made Kinnard’s own jaw tighten. He’d learned enough about France from Suzi to know the country had a Good Samaritan law. It said people were legally obliged to come to the aid of someone in danger or distress, as long as you could help without putting your own precious backside at risk. What you couldn’t do, though, was just turn your back and walk away. The least you were expected to do was call for help.

Kinnard didn’t have a cell phone on him. Didn’t know the police emergency number even if he could find a public phone. There wasn’t a cop or anybody else in sight. So maybe he was in a legal gray area, had a loophole. Yeah, right. A gutless wonder with a microdot conscience might rationalize the situation that way. But a street cop with twenty-five years experience? No way could he split. Even if a hassle was the last thing he needed right now.

His temper climbing fast into the red zone, Kinnard was about to speak out when the Frenchman took him by surprise. Kinnard thought he’d seen it all, but this guy showed him something new. He caught the woman’s wagging finger in his teeth. Bit down hard enough that she couldn’t yank it free.

The woman’s voice, now filled with pain, rose to operatic heights. So the guy decided to give her something more to complain about. He started whacking her with rights and lefts to the head. Openhanded blows, but hard enough to make her head jerk back and forth.

For a dizzying second, Kinnard’s subconscious projected his face onto the Frenchman and Suzi’s face onto the woman. He felt flush with shame. But self-loathing turned quickly into fury. The shout that erupted from his chest drowned out the sounds of the fight.

“Hey, asshole, leave her the hell alone!”

Kinnard’s outburst made the French couple jump a foot into the air, the woman finally freeing her mangled finger. They both turned to gape at him. Kinnard saw it was the first time the Frenchman realized he was there. But the woman…it seemed to Kinnard almost as if she had been expecting him. Was pissed he hadn’t intervened sooner.

By now the Frenchman saw who he was dealing with: a gray-haired fart holding a vase. He snarled at Kinnard, “Va te faire foutre, papie.” Fuck off, grandpa.

The woman tried to seize the moment to flee, but she turned an ankle and fell.

Dismissing Kinnard as inconsequential, the man turned and started to kick the woman hard. Kinnard couldn’t see the guy’s face just then, but nonetheless recognized himself again in the role of the pitiless bully.

Without a moment’s hesitation, he joined the fray.

Chapter 5

A street fighter to his core, Kinnard never worried about what was fair. He hit the Frenchman with a straight right to his cheek while the guy was still kicking the shit out of the woman. It was a good solid punch with plenty of shoulder and hip behind it, but it was a bit off target. Kinnard had been going for the hinge of the guy’s jaw. Had he hit the nerve bundle there, it would have been all over. As it was, Kinnard had busted the side of the guy’s face for him, but left him upright.

Well, almost. The force of the punch knocked him back into the woman lying on the walkway. The Frenchman lost his footing, but where a normal guy would have keeled over like a felled tree and smacked his head on the pavement, this SOB went horizontal in the air, spun like he was a plane doing a barrel roll, and his right leg came whipping around. As if he had it in mind all along, he locked onto the urn Kinnard cradled in the crook of his left arm. The bastard’s right foot lashed out and kicked the urn free from Kinnard’s grasp. Sent it rocketing into the night.

Kinnard howled, “No!”

The laws of physics ignored his plea. The urn shot out over the Seine, smashed into the bridge’s support pillar and burst into innumerable pieces. Suzanne’s ashes fell into the river, the portion that didn’t become a dark smear on the damp bridge support.

For a moment, Kinnard could do no more than stare in stupefied disbelief.

A clatter of retreating footsteps reminded him that his business under the Pont d’Iéna remained unfinished. He turned to see the battered blonde hobbling off, her high heels resounding off the pavement. The asshole Kinnard had punched was back on his feet, running a hand over his bruised face and wincing. He wasn’t done, though. He didn’t give a damn about the woman now. He wanted Kinnard. Wanted to put him into the river, as lifeless as Suzanne.

But Kinnard wasn’t ready to go.

Not while the French cocksucker was still drawing breath.

Kinnard watched the Frenchman as the guy moved in on him. Even drunk and with his balance less than perfect, he was light on his feet. He had his hands up, but they wouldn’t be his primary weapons. The Frenchman was a kicker. That was when it came to Kinnard where he’d seen a move like the one the prick had used to kick Suzi’s ashes into the river. SportsCenter. When the cable channel didn’t have enough real sports highlights to show they’d put on some of those soccer trick shots. Guys doing somersaults, kicking the ball past the goalie.

So he knew what to expect: feet. Maybe a head butt. Like the guy who cracked that dago’s sternum with his head in a big game a few years back. He’d been French, too. So watch for that.

The Frenchman was smiling at Kinnard, blood on his teeth from Kinnard’s first shot. Looking like he was a wolf about to eat a lamb. Confident little fuck. Kinnard figured he had three inches and thirty pounds on the guy, none of it fat. Maybe it was Kinnard’s gray hair that had him fooled. That was the case, hooray for gray.

The Frenchman spat out a gob of blood and started to say something.

Kinnard loved it when assholes talked. Their minds were on getting out whatever it was they had to say. Not on fighting. Kinnard shot forward and hit the prick with two lefts and a right while he was still yapping. The lefts set him back on his heels and the right lifted him off his feet.

Damn, if he didn’t do a backflip instead of going down hard. Fucker went into a roll right out of the flip and popped back up to his feet. Like he was made of rubber or something, the asshole just kept bouncing back. He was still hurting from three shots to the head, though, and Kinnard wasn’t about to give him any time to recover. He closed on the guy fast.

Not fast enough. The Frenchman’s right foot shot out, going for Kinnard’s groin. Would have ended the fight right there if he’d connected. Kinnard would have collapsed like a sack of shit and been available for stomping. No fancy getaway moves for him. But he managed to turn just enough to take the kick on his left thigh. It felt like he’d been hit with an axe.

He staggered backward and now the frog pursued, kicking right, left, and right again. Like a boxer throwing combinations and, Jesus Christ, were his legs strong. His first two kicks were directed at Kinnard’s head, only Frenchie hadn’t gotten the range yet, underestimating Kinnard’s height. The kicks caught Kinnard on his shoulders, felt like he’d been hit with sledgehammers. The last kick was another try for Kinnard’s crotch. He managed to sidestep that one completely, get both hands around the guy’s ankle, lift it high into the air, and then hold on so the fucker wouldn’t be able to do any more acrobatics.

Kinnard used his grip on the Frenchman’s leg to drive him straight down to the pavement. The back of the guy’s head hit first, followed by his torso and keister. A series of satisfying cries of pain reached Kinnard’s ears. He’d finally put some real hurt into the sonofabitch. There was a question in Kinnard’s mind, though, whether that last gasp of agony might have his own.

The pain in his left leg was ratcheting up fast. God, had that bastard frog ruptured his femoral artery or something? Was he dying on his feet? Not that he was going to be standing long if the throbbing in his leg kept getting worse.

And, God Almighty, that French bastard was getting to his feet again. No fancy moves this time. He was using both hands to push himself upright. If Kinnard had had his gun with him, he would have emptied the whole clip into this guy. Then crack his skull with the barrel. But he didn’t have his gun, and here came the Frenchman again.

He was trying to take a run at Kinnard but the fall had messed up his wiring. He wasn’t light on his feet anymore. In fact, he was having trouble just staying upright. If Kinnard had had two good legs to work with, he could have stepped out of the way, given the guy a little shove and sent him into the river. With any luck, the prick wouldn’t know how to swim.

But fancy footwork was no more available to Kinnard than his gun. Still, he was able to see what the Frenchman intended to try. No kicks this time. Not with those wobbly legs. Not with the raw hatred in those eyes. The guy was going to try to kill Kinnard with his head. He wasn’t tall enough to go tête à tête—head to head—so he had to try to crack Kinnard’s chest. Just like that other French guy in that big game.

Head butts were fight finishers, sometimes fatally so. There were only two good countermoves. The first was to get out of the way. But it was already too late for that. The second was too meet the hard surface of the attacking skull with something that could absorb the blow without damage, something that would overwhelm the integrity of the cervical spine.

The heel of Kinnard’s right palm shot forward to collide with the Frenchman’s thrusting forehead. The bones of Kinnard’s arm were stronger than those anchoring the Frenchman’s head. The smack of flesh on flesh was followed by the crack of the frog’s neck breaking. He went down like he’d been shot. His legs twitched twice and then he was still.

Kinnard didn’t see any of that. The jolt of hitting his opponent’s head was instantly transmitted to the shoulder the Frenchman had kicked. That pain combined with the agony in his left leg was more than consciousness would tolerate. He collapsed alongside the Frenchman, his head coming to rest atop his opponent’s outstretched arm.

When the cops found them two hours later it looked as if the battered American lay in the fond embrace of the Frenchman he had killed.”