Digital Fortress Chapter 22
David Becker strode over and stared down at the old man asleep on the cot. The man’s right wrist was wrapped in a cast. He was between sixty and seventy years old. His snow-white hair was parted neatly to the side, and in the center of his forehead was a deep purple welt that spread down into his right eye.
A little bump? he thought, recalling the lieutenant’s words. Becker checked the man’s fingers. There was no gold ring anywhere. Becker reached down and touched the man’s arm. “Sir?” He shook him lightly. “Excuse me… sir?”
The man didn’t move.
Becker tried again, a little louder. “Sir?”
The man stirred. “Qu’est-ce… quelle heure est-” He slowly opened his eyes and focused on Becker. He scowled at having been disturbed. “Qu’est-ce-que vous voulez?”
Yes, Becker thought, a French Canadian! Becker smiled down at him. “Do you have a moment?”
Although Becker’s French was perfect, he spoke in what he hoped would be the man’s weaker language, English. Convincing a total stranger to hand over a gold ring might be a little tricky; Becker figured he could use any edge he could get.
There was a long silence as the man got his bearings. He surveyed his surroundings and lifted a long finger to smooth his limp white mustache. Finally he spoke. “What do you want?” His English carried a thin, nasal accent.
“Sir,” Becker said, over pronouncing his words as if speaking to a deaf person, “I need to ask you a few questions.”
The man glared up at him with a strange look on his face. “Do you have some sort of problem?”
Becker frowned; the man’s English was impeccable. He immediately lost the condescending tone. “I’m sorry to bother you, sir, but were you by any chance at the Plaza de Espana today?”
The old man’s eyes narrowed. “Are you from the City Council?”
“No, actually I’m-“
“Bureau of Tourism?”
“Look, I know why you’re here!” The old man struggled to sit up. “I’m not going to be intimidated! If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a thousand times-Pierre Cloucharde writes the world the way he lives the world. Some of your corporate guidebooks might sweep this under the table for a free night on the town, but the Montreal Times is not for hire! I refuse!”
“I’m sorry, sir. I don’t think you under-“
“Merde alors! I understand perfectly!” He wagged a bony finger at Becker, and his voice echoed through the gymnasium. “You’re not the first! They tried the same thing at the Moulin Rouge, Brown’s Palace, and the Golfigno in Lagos! But what went to press? The truth! The worst Wellington I’ve ever eaten! The filthiest tub I’ve ever seen! And the rockiest beach I’ve ever walked! My readers expect no less!”
Patients on nearby cots began sitting up to see what was going on. Becker looked around nervously for a nurse. The last thing he needed was to get kicked out.
Cloucharde was raging. “That miserable excuse for a police officer works for your city! He made me get on his motorcycle! Look at me!” He tried to lift his wrist. “Now who’s going to write my column?”
“I’ve never been so uncomfortable in my forty-three years of travel! Look at this place! You know, my column is syndicated in over-“
“Sir!” Becker held up both hands urgently signaling truce. “I’m not interested in your column; I’m from the Canadian Consulate. I’m here to make sure you’re okay!”
Suddenly there was a dead quiet in the gymnasium. The old man looked up from his bed and eyed the intruder suspiciously.
Becker ventured on in almost a whisper. “I’m here to see if there’s anything I can do to help.” Like bring you a couple of Valium.
After a long pause, the Canadian spoke. “The consulate?” His tone softened considerably.
“So, you’re not here about my column?”
It was as if a giant bubble had burst for Pierre Cloucharde. He settled slowly back down onto his mound of pillows. He looked heartbroken. “I thought you were from the city… trying to get me to…” He faded off and then looked up. “If it’s not about my column, then why are you here?”
It was a good question, Becker thought, picturing the Smoky Mountains. “Just an informal diplomatic courtesy,” he lied.
The man looked surprised. “A diplomatic courtesy?”
“Yes, sir. As I’m sure a man of your stature is well aware, the Canadian government works hard to protect its countrymen from the indignities suffered in these, er-shall we say-less refined countries.”
Cloucharde’s thin lips parted in a knowing smile. “But of course… how pleasant.”
“You are a Canadian citizen, aren’t you?”
“Yes, of course. How silly of me. Please forgive me. Someone in my position is often approached with… well… you understand.”
“Yes, Mr. Cloucharde, I certainly do. The price one pays for celebrity.”
“Indeed.” Cloucharde let out a tragic sigh. He was an unwilling martyr tolerating the masses. “Can you believe this hideous place?” He rolled his eyes at the bizarre surroundings. “It’s a mockery. And they’ve decided to keep me overnight.”
Becker looked around. “I know. It’s terrible. I’m sorry it took me so long to get here.”
Cloucharde looked confused. “I wasn’t even aware you were coming.”
Becker changed the subject. “Looks like a nasty bump on your head. Does it hurt?”
“No, not really. I took a spill this morning-the price one pays for being a good Samaritan. The wrist is the thing that’s hurting me. Stupid Guardia. I mean, really! Putting a man of my age on a motorcycle. It’s reprehensible.”
“Is there anything I can get for you?”
Cloucharde thought a moment, enjoying the attention. “Well, actually…” He stretched his neck and tilted his head left and right. “I could use another pillow if it’s not too much trouble.”
“Not at all.” Becker grabbed a pillow off a nearby cot and helped Cloucharde get comfortable.
The old man sighed contentedly. “Much better… thank you.”
“Pas du tout,” Becker replied.
“Ah!” The man smiled warmly. “So you do speak the language of the civilized world.”
“That’s about the extent of it,” Becker said sheepishly.
“Not a problem,” Cloucharde declared proudly. “My column is syndicated in the U.S.; my English is first rate.”
“So I’ve heard.” Becker smiled. He sat down on the edge of Cloucharde’s cot. “Now, if you don’t mind my asking, Mr. Cloucharde, why would a man such as yourself come to a place like this? There are far better hospitals in Seville.”
Cloucharde looked angry. “That police officer… he bucked me off his motorcycle and then left me bleeding in the street like a stuck pig. I had to walk over here.”
“He didn’t offer to take you to a better facility?”
“On that godawful bike of his? No thanks!”
“What exactly happened this morning?”
“I told it all to the lieutenant.”
“I’ve spoken to the officer and-“
“I hope you reprimanded him!” Cloucharde interrupted.
Becker nodded. “In the severest terms. My office will be following up.”
“I should hope so.”
“Monsieur Cloucharde.” Becker smiled, pulling a pen out of his jacket pocket. “I’d like to make a formal complaint to the city. Would you help? A man of your reputation would be a valuable witness.”
Cloucharde looked buoyed by the prospect of being quoted. He sat up. “Why, yes… of course. It would be my pleasure.”
Becker took out a small note pad and looked up. “Okay, let’s start with this morning. Tell me about the accident.”
The old man sighed. “It was sad really. The poor Asian fellow just collapsed. I tried to help him-but it was no use.”
“You gave him CPR?”
Cloucharde looked ashamed. “I’m afraid I don’t know how. I called an ambulance.”
Becker remembered the bluish bruises on Tankado’s chest. “Did the paramedics administer CPR?”
“Heavens, no!” Cloucharde laughed. “No reason to whip a dead horse-the fellow was long gone by the time the ambulance got there. They checked his pulse and carted him off, leaving me with that horrific policeman.”
That’s strange, Becker thought, wondering where the bruise had come from. He pushed it from his mind and got to the matter at hand. “What about the ring?” he said as nonchalantly as possible.
Cloucharde looked surprised. “The lieutenant told you about the ring?”
“Yes, he did.”
Cloucharde seemed amazed. “Really? I didn’t think he believed my story. He was so rude-as if he thought I were lying. But my story was accurate, of course. I pride myself on accuracy.”
“Where is the ring?” Becker pressed.
Cloucharde didn’t seem to hear. He was glassy-eyed, staring into space. “Strange piece really, all those letters-looked like no language I’d ever seen.”
“Japanese, maybe?” Becker offered.
“So you got a good look at it?”
“Heavens, yes! When I knelt down to help, the man kept pushing his fingers in my face. He wanted to give me the ring. It was most bizarre, horrible really-his hands were quite dreadful.”
“And that’s when you took the ring?”
Cloucharde went wide-eyed. “That’s what the officer told you! That I took the ring?”
Becker shifted uneasily.
Cloucharde exploded. “I knew he wasn’t listening! That’s how rumors get started! I told him the Jap fellow gave away the ring-but not to me! There’s no way I would take anything from a dying man! My heavens! The thought of it!”
Becker sensed trouble. “So you don’t have the ring?”
A dull ache crept through the pit of his stomach. “Then who has it?”
Cloucharde glared at Becker indignantly. “The German! The German has it!”
Becker felt like the floor had been pulled out from under him. “German? What German?”
“The German in the park! I told the officer about him! I refused the ring but the fascist swine accepted it!”
Becker set down his pen and paper. The charade was over. This was trouble. “So a German has the ring?”
“Where did he go?”
“No idea. I ran to call the police. When I got back, he was gone.”
“Do you know who he was?”
“Are you sure?”
“My life is tourists,” Cloucharde snapped. “I know one when I see one. He and his lady friend were out strolling the park.”
Becker was more and more confused every moment. “Lady friend? There was somebody with the German?”
Cloucharde nodded. “An escort. Gorgeous redhead. Mon Dieu! Beautiful.”
“An escort?” Becker was stunned. “As in… a prostitute?”
Cloucharde grimaced. “Yes, if you must use the vulgar term.”
“But… the officer said nothing about-“
“Of course not! I never mentioned the escort.” Cloucharde dismissed Becker with a patronizing wave of his good hand. “They aren’t criminals-it’s absurd that they’re harassed like common thieves.”
Becker was still in a mild state of shock. “Was there anyone else there?”
“No, just the three of us. It was hot.”
“And you’re positive the woman was a prostitute?”
“Absolutely. No woman that beautiful would be with a manlike that unless she were well paid! Mon Dieu! He was fat, fat, fat! A loudmouthed, overweight, obnoxious German!” Cloucharde winced momentarily as he shifted his weight, but he ignored the pain and plowed on. “This man was a beast-three hundred pounds at least. He locked onto that poor dear like she was about to run away-not that I’d blame her. I mean really! Hands all over her. Bragged that he had her all weekend for three hundred dollars! He’s the one who should have dropped dead, not that poor Asian fellow.” Cloucharde came up for air, and Becker jumped in.
“Did you get his name?”
Cloucharde thought for a moment and then shook his head. “No idea.” He winced in pain again and settled slowly back into his pillows.
Becker sighed. The ring had just evaporated before his eyes. Commander Strathmore was not going to be happy.
Cloucharde dabbed at his forehead. His burst of enthusiasm had taken its toll. He suddenly looked ill.
Becker tried another approach. “Mr. Cloucharde, I’d like to get a statement from the German and his escort as well. Do you have any idea where they’re staying?”
Cloucharde closed his eyes, his strength fading. His breathing grew shallow.
“Anything at all?” Becker pressed. “The escort’s name?
There was a long silence.
Cloucharde rubbed his right temple. He was suddenly looking pale. “Well… ah… no. I don’t believe…” His voice was shaky.
Becker leaned toward him. “Are you all right?”
Cloucharde nodded lightly. “Yes, fine… just a little… the excitement maybe…” He trailed off.
“Think, Mr. Cloucharde.” Becker urged quietly. “It’s important.”
Cloucharde winced. “I don’t know… the woman… the man kept calling her…” He closed his eyes and groaned.
“What was her name?”
“I really don’t recall…” Cloucharde was fading fast.
“Think.” Becker prodded. “It’s important that the consular file be as complete as possible. I’ll need to support your story with statements from the other witnesses. Any information you can give me to help locate them…”
But Cloucharde was not listening. He was dabbing his forehead with the sheet. “I’m sorry… perhaps tomorrow…” He looked nauseated.
“Mr. Cloucharde, it’s important you remember this now.” Becker suddenly realized he was speaking too loudly. People on nearby cots were still sitting up watching what was going on. On the far side of the room a nurse appeared through the double doors and strode briskly toward them.
“Anything at all,” Becker pressed urgently.
“The German called the woman-“
Becker lightly shook Cloucharde, trying to bring him back.
Cloucharde’s eyes flickered momentarily. “Her name…”
Stay with me, old fella…
“Dew…” Cloucharde’s eyes closed again. The nurse was closing in. She looked furious.
“Dew?” Becker shook Cloucharde’s arm.
The old man groaned. “He called her…” Cloucharde was mumbling now, barely audible.
The nurse was less than ten feet away yelling at Becker in angry Spanish. Becker heard nothing. His eyes were fixed on the old man’s lips. He shook Cloucharde one last time as the nurse bore down on him.
The nurse grabbed David Becker’s shoulder. She pulled him to his feet just as Cloucharde’s lips parted. The single word leaving the old man’s mouth was not actually spoken. It was softly sighed-like a distant sensual remembrance. “Dewdrop…”
The scolding grasp yanked Becker away.
Dewdrop? Becker wondered. What the hell kind of name is Dewdrop? He spun away from the nurse and turned one last time to Cloucharde. “Dewdrop? Are you sure?”
But Pierre Cloucharde was fast asleep.