James D. Best is a prolific author, perhaps best known for his Steve Dancy Westerns, which have sold over 100,000 copies. Jim’s tagline for the seven novels (and one short story collection) is “Honest Westerns. Full of Dishonest Characters.”
But like many successful popular fiction authors such as Lee Child, Michael Connelly, Lisa Gardner and John Sandford (to name a few of my favorites), Jim has written some excellent works beyond the Dancy series: Deluge, The Shut Mouth Society, and now The Templar Reprisals. I’m a big fan of his work, not only because he’s a darned good writer but he also writes excellent, intriguing stories. He lives up a hundred percent to my favorite aphorism, “A good story, well told.” Herewith, the first four chapters of “Templar.” If you like what you read, be sure to visit Jim’s website, where you can find this and all of his works in paper, eBook and often in audiobook as well.
Welcome back to The Fictional Café, Jim
Paris had lost much of its charm. Greg Evarts started to express his disenchantment with their favorite city but decided to keep his mouth shut. There was no reason to dampen his wife’s enthusiasm.
She shook her head. “I can’t believe they ruined my city.”
“It’s not ruined,” he consoled.
“It’s no longer magical. In my book that’s the same as ruined.”
“Trish, you don’t really mean that.”
They were strolling across Pont Neuf to the Sequana restaurant on Île de la Cité island. Early for their reservation, they detoured into a bastion. Originally, the series of bastions had been designed so pedestrians could get out of the way of large carriages. Now they served as observation points to view the River Seine. They leaned against the stone railing and Patricia Baldwin hooked her arm through his as they watched the dinner cruise ships float gently up and down the river. Evening light played off the rippling water and they could hear faint dreamy music in the distance. It was perfect.
“You’re right, I didn’t mean it,” she said.
Evarts smiled and put his hand on her forearm.
“I do miss the Paris of my college years, though,” she said.
“It’s still here. You just have to look harder.”
“Greg, we’ve been looking for two days. So far, we’ve only spotted an echo. The Middle East attire and the forest of selfie-sticks bother me, but the soldiers are truly off-putting. How can the most romantic city in the world maintain its reputation with dead-serious soldiers marching everywhere in urban formations.”
“We’ve been visiting tourist attractions. Unfortunately, they’ve become targets for terrorism. You’ve got to admit the district around our hotel is Parisian to the core.”
“A pricy hotel in a niche district. That’s not the Paris of my youth.”
Evarts squeezed her forearm, saying nothing. He didn’t want to argue. Not this evening. This was their anniversary, and four years of marriage had taught him that when his wife’s mood turned sour, say nothing, but give verbal or physical feedback to show he was listening. It worked. She smiled and gave him a kiss on the cheek.
Originally built in 1607, Pont Neuf was the oldest standing bridge crossing the Seine and had a reputation as a meeting place for lovers. Île de la Cité was the birthplace of Paris and in those early days, the bridge served as the hub of the city. At that time, it was clogged with vendors, street entertainers, and petty criminals. Benjamin Franklin found the bridge so seedy that he refused to walk across it. Now the bridge had been cleared of people earning a living, licit or otherwise.
It was quiet. It was peaceful. It was romantic. A picture-perfect summer evening in Paris and they were positioned perfectly to enjoy the twilight. Evarts felt inner contentment.
A horrific scream. A woman’s. Then a chorus of screams. Men and women. People in a panic ran toward them. What the hell was happening? Something terrifying! Something right behind this herd of screaming people. Evarts grabbed Baldwin’s arm and jerked her to his other side so his body could shield her from the mob. He felt her pull him away from the charging hoard, but instinct caused him to resist. He swiveled around to examine the other direction when he heard automatic gunfire come from the Right Bank.
Damn! They were in the middle of a terrorist attack.
He pulled Baldwin below the stone railing.
People ran. People screamed. Evarts heard glass shatter, horns blasting, and the crash of metal against metal as cars slammed on their brakes or hit the gas. Tranquility had instantly turned into chaos.
Soon, their alcove started to fill with people trying to escape the hail of bullets. This was a two-pronged attack. One or more terrorists on the Left Bank had done something to chase people toward gunmen on the Right Bank.
Evarts thought fast.
If the gunmen marching across the bridge had plenty of ammunition, they would soon reach their bastion. He heard three or four automatic rifles. He wasn’t going to wait to be murdered.
“We’re going away from the gunfire!” Evarts screamed over the noise.
Baldwin immediately nodded.
Holding hands, they scurried around the perimeter of the bastion until they were on the edge that led toward the Left Bank.
He waited until he heard the gunfire lighten. At least some of the shooters were changing magazines.
He yelled, “Now!”
They ran as if the Devil himself was behind them. After a couple of strides, Evarts pulled his wife in a weaving pattern. He was scared. He became more frightened when he heard all the guns start up again. As he ran, he scanned the bridge in front of him. People were panicked. They stopped running away from whatever was behind them but couldn’t make the decision to reverse course. Most fell to the ground or dove toward one of the bastions. None ran with him. What was he heading toward?
As his visibility up the bridge walkway cleared, he gasped. Ahead were two blood covered men wielding curved swords. He scanned the area between him and the nearest terrorist. No weapons. Not a rock or brick or even an umbrella. He let go of his wife’s hand and never broke stride as he picked up a selfie-stick. He collapsed the stick and ripped off the swivel end as he ran.
The nearest terrorist charged, screaming.
Evarts feinted a block with the selfie-stick, but then veered and ducked under the swing of the sword. He thrust the selfie-stick upward into the throat of the terrorist. Evarts felt the jagged, broken end dig deeply into the terrorist’s neck. As both hands went to his throat, the terrorist dropped the sword.
The second assailant came fast, sword held high for a killing blow. Too fast for Evarts to pick up the discarded sword. He braced his legs to jump to the side when he heard his wife yell.
“Arrête ou je tire!”
The harsh scream carried all the authority of a policeman. The command to stop or I’ll shoot worked. The second terrorist turned and started to charge her until he saw no weapon in her hand.
He returned his attention to Evarts. Too late. Evarts had retrieved the sword from the ground and had already begun his swing.
Evarts used every muscle in his body as he slashed a crosscut against his opponent’s body. The downward driving force ripped through the upper ribs on a slant and almost came out at the hips.
He didn’t hesitate. He grabbed Baldwin’s hand and ran like hell for the Left Bank.
Evarts checked his watch. They had been locked in a bleak interrogation room for over three hours. A table, four hardwood chairs, and two bottles of water. Nothing else, not even a two-way mirror. They had escaped the terrorists, only to be detained by the Paris police. When they had first arrived, the police wanted to split them apart, but Evarts insisted they stay together. Separating witnesses was a standard police tactic, not for the purpose of intimidation, but to insure objective testimony. Due to the abject shock and suffering of the attack, the police finally relented and allowed them to stay together. That told Evarts that they were being held as witnesses, not suspects. Good. The long wait probably meant the police didn’t know that he had killed two of the assailants.
The door opened and two tired-looking policemen entered. They plopped into the opposite chairs like they had been standing for hours, which of course, they hadn’t.
“Excuse us for the delay,” one of them said in heavily accented English. “This has been an exhausting night with many people killed, injured, or horribly traumatized. How are you?”
“Okay,” Evarts said, “but hungry and tired . . . and anxious to return to our hotel.”
“We understand. We’ll make this as brief as possible.” He rummaged in his pocket and slid across the table two foil wrapped snacks. “I hope this will fortify you for a bit. I’m sorry, but we do need to ask some questions.”
“You wouldn’t have a bottle of chardonnay in that pocket, would you?” Baldwin asked.
The policeman grinned. “I regret, Madame, we have no wine in this station. A pity.” His smile faded. “I am Capitaine Durandus and this is my colleague, Lieutenant Guerin.”
Evarts knew these ranks equated to Chief Inspector and Inspector. The highest working ranks in the French police. Perhaps they did know about him killing two of the terrorists.
Durandus open a thin manila folder, “Let’s see. You are Mr. and Mrs. Evarts . . . or is that Baldwin?”
Evarts answered. “I am Greg Evarts, and this is my wife, Patricia Baldwin. My wife is a popular author and lecturer, so she retained her name after our marriage. It’s a common practice in the United States.”
“Yes, I know.” Durandus said. “But common or not, whoever designed our forms did not make an accommodation for this eventuality.”
He gave Evarts a look that conveyed that this bureaucratic gaffe was somehow his fault.
“Then fill out separate forms,” Baldwin said matter-of-factly.
“But you insisted on staying together . . . and now we must interview you together.” As if the thought had just occurred to him, he added, “Why was that?”
“Why would you even ask such a thing?” Baldwin’s tone conveyed peevishness. “We were innocent bystanders to a bloody terrorist attack. Are you suggesting you’d have preferred to isolate us from each other? That would have been heartless . . . cruel.”
A gallic shrug. “Perhaps, Madam, but as your husband knows, that would have been standard police procedure.”
Durandus gave Evarts a pointed look. They knew. The chief inspector had not been delayed interviewing other witnesses; he had been checking their background.
Evarts returned the hard stare.
“Is that not correct, Chief Evarts?”
“Correct in the case of a crime,” Evarts said, “but when married witnesses have been subjected to an emotional ordeal like a car crash or mass shooting, we allow them to console each other.”
“But a crime may have been committed,” Durandus said.
“May? I understand the need to refer to perpetrators as alleged, but I believe your morgue can confirm that a crime was committed.”
“A crime beyond the terrorist attack,” Durandus clarified.
Evarts didn’t speak. As police chief of Santa Barbara, California, he knew better than to volunteer information without understanding what the questioner already knew.
Durandus sighed. “Chief Evarts, we—”
“Please call me Greg.” Evarts interrupted.
“This is not an informal interview. Your professional position is important to our inquiry.”
“No, it isn’t,” Evarts said quietly, but firmly. “Capitaine Durandus, please get to the point. Otherwise, we’re leaving. It’s been a rough day.”
“Indeed.” Durandus again tried the hard stare. When Evarts didn’t buckle, he did an abbreviated Gallic shrug. “Very well. As you should have surmised, we have cameras on Pont Neuf. I watched you expertly kill two sword-wielding terrorists as if they were a mere nuisance to your crossing the bridge. Impressive for a policeman. Highly impressive for an administrator . . . what do you call them in the states . . . ah, yes, a desk jockey.”
“Why were you on that bridge at that time?”
Baldwin slapped the table. “That’s your question? Not what did we see? Did you ask your other witnesses why were they at a tourist site on a glorious Paris evening?” She stood. “Come on, Greg, were going to our hotel. I need a drink . . . and I don’t need to sit around in this godawful room responding to insipid questions.”
Evarts put a restraining hand on his wife’s arm. “I understand, Trish, but have a seat for a second. The Capitaine has piqued my interest.” She gave him a dirty look as she reluctantly sat back down. “Capitaine Durandus, in answer to your question, we had an eight thirty reservation at Sequana. Easily checked. Assuming your questions have a point, please get to it, or my wife and I will return tomorrow to give a statement.”
Durandus leaned forward. “Are you a Mason?”
Evarts fell against the back of his chair. “Yes.” His tone curt to show his frustration. “You really can’t be direct, can you?”
Piqued, Durandus leaned into Evarts. “How’s this for direct: Are you a Templar?”
Evarts slowly bent forward to meet Durandus eyeball to eyeball. “A Templar? Like in the Knights Templar? What the hell are you talking about?”
“That’s not an answer.”
“No, I am not a member of the Templars and I have no knowledge of any organization by that name. Does it even exist?”
“I’m afraid so. Templars killed the other four terrorists.”
Evarts tried not to react.
Durandus leaned even closer. “The four you didn’t kill.”
“They’re vigilantes,” Durandus explained.
“And you think I’m one of them?”
“Put yourself in our shoes. What would you suspect?”
“I don’t like your choice of words. Are we suspects?”
“You were in the right place at the right time. You killed two of the terrorists.” Durandus held both palms up. “And you’re a Mason.”
“What do Masons have to do with it?”
“Since the Fifteenth Century, Masons have harbored the Templars. But you already know that.”
“I know no such thing. I’ve never heard anything like that in my lodge.”
“Are you allowed to divulge your level within the Masons?”
“You obviously confirmed my membership while we cooled our heels. Some call Masons a secret society, but membership is not secret. Many even wear a ring. I can’t believe it’s relevant but I’m second degree.”
Guerin started writing for the first time.
“Just above apprentice.” Durandus appeared perplexed. “I’d conclude that you were lazy and unambitious . . . except that you climbed from patrolman to chief.”
“I take policing seriously.”
“But not the Masons?”
“Membership in the Masons helped me advance in my department. The club also eases my relationships with town leaders. I’m not a joiner . . . and don’t like clubs.” Now Evarts shrugged. “I do the minimum.”
“I see,” Durandus said noncommittedly.
“I don’t,” Evarts said. “Are you saying that four terrorists were killed by real Templar Knights and they’re affiliated with Masons? I’m sorry, but that’s nuts.”
“We don’t know as much as we’d like, but it appears that the Templars are affiliated with the Scottish Masons but use Freemasons worldwide for recruitment.”
“Are either of you a Mason?” Evarts asked suddenly.
“Both,” Durandus answered. “It’s part of why we were assigned to this special task force.”
That told Evarts a lot.
“How did they kill the four terrorists?” Evarts asked.
“Sniper fire,” Durandus answered.
“And you didn’t catch them?”
“No. They abandoned their rifles and disappeared into the crowd of onlookers.”
Evarts thought. Durandus remained silent and let him think.
“Why didn’t they shoot right away?” Evarts asked. “Before the killing started?”
“We’re not sure, but our guess is that their priority was to kill the gunmen, not the swordsmen. They were on the Left Bank, at least six of them. As people fell or hid, their line of sight became clear, and the Templars took the shooters out. By that time, you had taken care of the other two.”
“If they were waiting,” Evarts said, “they must have infiltrated the terrorists’ organization.”
“That we do know . . . and they have.”
“To ambush the attack, they would need spotters on the ground and possibly someone on the bridge,” Evarts mused.
Durandus didn’t respond.
“You think Greg is part of this vigilante group?” Baldwin exclaimed. “No way. You don’t know my husband. He doesn’t join causes. None. His life is me, the police force and surfing. He also plays singles tennis and prefers to ski by himself. He’s a loner . . . and nonpolitical. I need to remind him to vote . . . even when his friends are on the ballot. He attends Masonic meetings only occasionally. And I can tell you this, he did not arrange our wedding date four years ago to coincide with this terrorist attack.”
“You’re here for your anniversary?” Durandus asked.
“We are,” Baldwin answered. “Today, as a matter of fact. That’s the reason for the Sequana reservation. We ate there on our honeymoon.”
Durandus flicked his finger and Guerin left the room.
“Were you in the military?” Durandus asked.
“Army,” Evarts said.
“Telecommunications. Signal Corps.”
“Hmm. That doesn’t explain your performance on the bridge.”
“It probably had little to do with it, but I’ve taken martial arts lessons.”
“No team sports?”
“None. Except police versus firemen softball.”
“Not in school?”
“Not in school. Team sports took me away from surfing. Why this line of questioning?”
“As your wife said, I don’t know you. Understanding a man’s character tells me a lot.”
“Are you going to ask about what happened on the bridge?” Evarts asked.
“We know what happened on the bridge. Seven cameras caught the attack. Now we’re looking into deeper questions. Tell me, Chief Evarts, what was the terrorists’ strategy?”
Evarts thought before he spoke. “The job of the two sword-carrying terrorists was to cause panic and herd people into the waiting guns. The goal was maximum carnage. Due to shopping galleries, museums, Notre Dame, and traffic patterns, the Right Bank is heavily patrolled. If the attack started from that side, Police or soldiers might have responded before the swordsmen could instill complete panic. However, an attack started from the opposite bank would draw first responders toward the bridge to defend people from the assailants. That would pull them out of the surrounding streets and put them into the field of fire.”
“And that tells you?”
“If everything had gone to plan, police and soldiers would have been shot or drawn away, allowing the shooters to merge with the victims and gawkers.” Evarts paused. “The shooters weren’t expendable extremists. They were trained operatives that took the risk because they believed they had a chance to survive.”
“Excellent, Chief. And what else?”
“This was not a one-off, Capitaine. They have something else planned.”
Evarts ordered a Macallan’s on the rocks and a chardonnay for his wife.
Earlier at the station, Durandus and Guerin had left the room for a private conversation. On their return, they had given Baldwin and Evarts permission to leave. The police station, not France. Durandus ordered them to remain in Paris and return at eleven in the morning to make a formal statement. A uniformed officer drove them to their hotel and admonished them not to change hotels without notifying Durandus.
The hotel bar was tiny, but they could take their drinks to the comfortable lobby. At one in the morning, no one else was about.
Baldwin took a long sip of her wine and raised her eyelids in appreciation. “Oh, that tastes good. Thank god we’re out of that awful room.”
“For ten hours, anyway.”
“I’ll take it,” she said. “Thankfully, the French don’t start their day early.”
“I believe Durandus and Guerin were tired.”
“I don’t care,” she said flatly. After another sip, she set her glass down, leaned over, and gently kissed him. “Thank you for saving our lives.”
“Me? It was your impersonation of a rabid policewoman that saved our bacon.” He leaned over and kissed her, a little more seriously. “Thank you.”
“We’ll thank each other . . . but not in the lobby.” Her youthful face conveyed innocence but her smile did not.
Patricia Baldwin had just turned thirty-seven, but appeared as if she was still in her twenties. Most men would have called her cute, not pretty. She wasn’t vain about her appearance except for her expensively highlighted brunette hair, which she kept short and purposely disheveled. Along with her glasses and smooth skin, she looked more like a coed than the youngest full professor in the University of California system. Or at least she was at the time she was awarded her professorship at age thirty-one. Evarts had no idea if someone else held the title now. He was not about to ask.
“How do you manage to look so fresh after such a harrowing day,” Evarts said in wonderment.
She shrugged. “Genes, I guess. How long do you think they’ll keep us in France?”
“I suspect we’ll find out tomorrow. No longer than we planned on staying, I suppose.” He smiled. “Now that they no longer suspect that I’m a vigilante.”
“Can you read Durandus?”
“To a degree. He’s good. I’d hire him in a heartbeat.”
“But what about that Templar thing? Is that serious?”
“I presume so, but I never heard about it. Santa Barbara is not a terrorist target.”
“Why not?” She asked.
“Hard to get to, I suppose . . . harder to escape from. Small airport, only one major highway. Pretty shoreline, rich people, but nothing iconic.” He took a swallow of his whiskey. “Not sure, really, but let’s hope our fair city stays off the bad guys’ radar.”
“What did you mean when you said this is not a one-off? Should I be worried?”
“The gunmen were not radicalized Islamicists who swallowed a promise of seventy-two virgins. These were soldiers . . . non-suicidal professionals. The terrorist organization, whoever they are, sent their A-Team, a major investment in fighting capability. Marry that with the trend for jihadists to double- or triple-hit and you can conclude that they have one or more additional actions in play. And in answer to your last question, it does no good to worry. Terrorist attacks are relatively rare and those that do occur are unpredictable. If we knew where they were going to hit, we could stop them.”
“Why are you using the plural pronoun?”
“Am I?” He hesitated. “I guess I am.” Evarts though about it. “I’m in law enforcement, an unofficial worldwide fraternity, but I really think it’s about the events of the day. We’ve been drawn into it.”
“That’s not the way I’d put it. We were in the wrong place at the wrong time and lucky as hell to escape with our scalps. But this isn’t our problem, Greg. It’s not your case to solve. We’re here for a vacation. That’s it!”
She was fired up and Evarts didn’t blame her. He had been terrified. He knew she had been as well. They had met while fighting a secret society that wanted to rule North America and had fought side by side. She was the most courageous woman he had ever witnessed in battle, but that didn’t mean she welcomed the opportunity to engage in life-or-death combat. Evarts took a deep breath. She was right. This was not their fight.
“I understand,” he said. “I’m getting another drink. Do you want one?”
When he returned with a drink in each hand, she no longer appeared peeved.
“Sorry,” she said. “Tough day . . . especially the endless waiting in that dank room.”
“Yes, that was the hard part,” Evarts joked.
They both laughed.
After a sip of her fresh drink, she asked, “Do you think you can help? If you do, I won’t object.”
“Probably not. I keep up on the terrorist bulletins and attend an occasional seminar, but terrorism is not a high priority for me or my force.” He took a sip. “I am curious though. If it’s okay with you, I’d like to make a few calls.”
“No. No one over here will tell me anything. It would need to be our boys.”
“You’re talking about your old army buddies.”
Evarts nodded. He was officially in the Signal Corps, but she knew he had really worked for Army Intelligence. Electronic surveillance, not spy-running. He left the service as a major, but his friends who remained in the army had one or more stars on their shoulders. They could tell him if there was a vigilante group who used the ancient Templar moniker. All he really wanted to know was if they operated in the good ol’ US of A.
“Now?” She asked.
He did a quick calculation and determined that even with the time difference, few would remain at work in Washington. He decided on a text message. He pulled out his phone and typed as they finished their second drink. It took him longer than normal to send the message because he didn’t want to use words that would be flagged by the NSA.
He shoved the phone back in his pocket and smiled. “Done. Now, I think thanks are in order.”
Baldwin bounded up to her feet.
“Yes. Let’s celebrate being alive.”
James D. Best is the author of the bestselling Steve Dancy Tales: The Shopkeeper, Leadville, Murder at Thumb Butte, The Return, Jenny’s Revenge, and Crossing the Animas. His other novels include Tempest at Dawn, The Shut Mouth Society, and Deluge. Principled Action and The Digital Organization are his nonfiction books. James has ghost written three books, authored two regular magazine columns, and published numerous journal articles. As a conference speaker, he has made presentations throughout North America and Europe. He is a member of Western Writers of America, Western Literature Association, and the Pacific Beach Surf Club. James enjoys writing, film, surfing, skiing, and watching his grandchildren play sports and cavort.