Robert Ludlum's The Paris Option

A Covert-One Novel

Covert-One (Volume 3)

Robert Ludlum and Gayle Lynds

St. Martin's Griffin

Paris, France
Monday, May 5

The first warm winds of spring gusted along Paris's narrow back streets and broad boulevards, calling winter-weary residents out into the night. They thronged the sidewalks, strolling, linking arms, filling the chairs around outdoor cafe tables, everywhere smiling and chatting. Even the tourists stopped complaining-this was the enchanting Paris promised in their travel guides.

Occupied with their glasses of vin ordinaire under the stars, the spring celebrators on the bustling rue de Vaugirard did not notice the large black Renault van with darkened windows that left the busy street for the boulevard Pasteur. The van circled around the block, down the rue du Dr Roux, and at last entered the quiet rue des Volontaires, where the only action was of a young couple kissing in a recessed doorway.

The black van rolled to a stop outside L'Institut Pasteur, cut its engine, and turned off its headlights. It remained there, silent, until the young couple, oblivious in their bliss, disappeared inside a building across the street.

The van's doors clicked open, and four figures emerged clothed completely in black, their faces hidden behind balaclavas. Carrying compact Uzi submachine guns and wearing backpacks, they slipped through the night, almost invisible. A figure materialized from the shadows of the Pasteur Institute and guided them onto the grounds, while the street behind them remained quiet, deserted.

Out on the rue de Vaugirard, a saxophonist had begun to play, his music throaty and mellow. The night breeze carried the music, the laughter, and the scent of spring flowers in through the open windows of the multitude of buildings at the Pasteur. The famed research center was home to more than twenty-five hundred scientists, technicians, students, and administrators, and many still labored into the night.

The intruders had not expected so much activity. On high alert, they avoided the paths, listening, watching the windows and grounds, staying close to trees and structures as the sounds of the springtime gaiety frown the rue de Vaugirard increased.

But in his laboratory, all outside activity was lost on Dr. Emile Chambord, who sat working alone at his computer keyboard on the otherwise unoccupied second floor of his building. His lab was large, as befitted one of the institute's most distinguished researchers. It boasted several prize pieces of equipment, including a robotic gene-chip reader and a scanning-tunneling microscope, which measured and moved individual atoms. But more personal and far more critical to him tonight were the files near his left elbow and, on his other side, a spiral-bound notebook, which was open to the page on which he was meticulously recording data.

His fingers paused impatiently on the keyboard, which was connected to an odd-looking apparatus that appeared to have more in common with an octopus than with IBM or Compaq. Its nerve center was contained in a temperature-controlled glass tray, and through its sides, one could see silver-blue gel packs immersed like translucent eggs in a jellied, foam-like substance. Ultra-thin tubing connected the gel packs to one another, while atop them sat a lid. Where it interfaced with the gel packs was a coated metallic plate. Above it all stood an iMac-sized machine with a complicated control panel on which lights blinked like impulsive little eyes. From this machine, more tubing sprouted, feeding into the pack array, while wires and cables connected both the tray and the machine to the keyboard, a monitor, a printer, and assorted other electronic devices.

Dr. Chambord keyboarded in commands, watched the monitor, read the dials on the iMac-sized machine, and continually checked the temperature of the gel packs in the tray. He recorded data in his notebook as he worked, until he suddenly sat back and studied the entire array. Finally, he gave an abrupt nod and typed a paragraph of what appeared to be gibberish-letters, numbers, and symbols-and activated a timer.

His foot tapped nervously, and his fingers drummed the lab bench. But in precisely twelve seconds, the printer came to life and spat out a sheet of paper. Controlling his excitement, he stopped the timer and made a note. At last he allowed himself to snatch up the printout.

As he read, he smiled. "Mais, oui."

Dr. Chambord took a deep breath and typed small clusters of commands. Sequences appeared on his screen so fast that his fingers could not keep up. He muttered inaudibly as he worked. Moments later, he tensed, leaned closer to the monitor, and whispered in French, ". . . one more . . . one . . . more . . . there!"

He laughed aloud, triumphant, and turned to look at the clock on the wall. It read 9:55 p.m. He recorded the time and stood up.

His pale face glowing, he stuffed his files and notebook into a battered briefcase and took his coat from the old-fashioned Empire wardrobe near the door. As he put on his hat, he glanced again at the clock and returned to his contraption. Still standing, he keyboarded another short series of commands, watched the screen for a time, and finally shut everything down. He walked briskly to the door, opened it onto the corridor, and, observed that it was dim and deserted. For a moment, he had a sense of foreboding.

Then he shook it off. Non, he reminded himself: This was a moment to be savored, a great achievement. Smiling broadly, he stepped into the shadowy hall. Before he could close the door, four black-clothed figures surrounded him.

Thirty minutes later, the wiry leader of the intruders stood watch as his three companions finished loading the black van on the rue des Volontaires. As soon as the side door closed, he appraised the quiet street once more and hopped into the passenger seat. He nodded to the driver, and the van glided away toward the crowded rue de Vaugirard, where it disappeared in traffic.

The lighthearted revelry on the sidewalks and in the cafes and tabacs continued. More street musicians arrived, and the vin ordinaire flowed like the Seine. Then, without warning, the building that housed Dr. Chambord's laboratory on the legendary Pasteur campus exploded in a rolling sheet of fire. The earth shook as flames seemed to burst from every window and combust up toward the black night sky in a red-and-yellow eruption of terrible heat visible for miles around. As bricks, sparks, glass, and ash rained down, the throngs on the surrounding streets screamed in terror and ran for shelter.

Copyright 2002 by Myn Pyn LLC