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He reached the landing and turned to his left towards the bedroom door. He paused for a moment trying to dismiss the echo in his chest; it was growing louder, the pounding more rapid. Part of the truth, not all of it. No invention, simply omission.

An agreement . . . a contract . . . with a group of men - honourable men - who were after Carlos. That was all Villiers had to know; it was what he had to accept. He could not be told he was dealing with an amnesiac, for in that loss of memory might be found a man of dishonour. The legend of St Cyr, Algeria and Normandy would not accept that; not now, here, at the end of his life.

Oh, God, the balance was tenuous! The line between belief and disbelief so thin . . . as thin as it was for the man-corpse whose name was not Jason Bourne.

He opened the door and stepped inside, into an old man's private hell. Outside, beyond curtained windows, the sirens raged and the crowds shouted. Spectators in an unseen arena, jeering the unknown, oblivious to its unfathomable cause.

Jason closed the door and stood motionless. The large room was filled with shadows, the only light a bedside table lamp. His eyes greeted by a sight he wished he did not have to see. Villiers had dragged a high-backed desk chair across the room and was sitting on it at the foot of the bed, staring at the dead woman sprawled over the covers. Angelique Villiers's bronzed head was resting on the pillow, her eyes wide, bulging out of their sockets. Her throat was swollen, the flesh a reddish purple, the massive bruise having spread throughout her neck. Her body was still twisted, in contrast to the upright head, contorted in furious struggle, her long bare legs stretched out, her hips turned, the negligee torn, her breasts bursting out of the silk - even in death, sensual. There had been no attempt to conceal the whore.

The old soldier sat like a bewildered child, punished for an insignificant act, the meaningful crime having escaped his tormentor's reasoning and perhaps his own. He pulled his eyes away from the dead woman and looked at Bourne.

'What happened outside?' he asked in a monotone.

'Men were watching your house. Carlos's men, five of them. I started a fire up the street; no one was hurt. All but one man left; I took him out. '

'You're resourceful, Monsieur Bourne. '

'I'm resourceful,' agreed Jason. 'But they'll be back. The fire'll be out and they'll come back; before then, if Carlos puts it together, and I think he will. If he does, he'll send someone in here. He won't come himself, of course, but one of his guns will be here. When that man finds you . . . and her . . . he'll kill you. Carlos loses her, but-he still wins. He wins a second time; he's used you through her and at the end he kills you. He walks away and you're dead. People can draw whatever conclusions they like, but I don't think they'll be flattering. '

'You're very precise. Assured of your judgment*

'I know what I'm talking about. I'd prefer not to say what I'm going to say, but there's no time for your feelings. '

'I have none left Say what you will. '

'Your wife told you she was French, didn't she?'

'Yes. From the south. Her family was from Loures Barouse, near the Spanish border. She came to Paris years ago. Lived with an aunt, what of it?'

'Did you ever meet her family?'

'No. '

They didn't come up for your marriage?'

'All things considered, we thought it would be best not to ask them. The disparity of our ages would have disturbed them. '

'What about the aunt here in Paris?'

'She died before I met Angelique. What's the point of all this?'

'Your wife wasn't French. I doubt there was even an aunt in Paris, and her family didn't come from Loures Barouse, although the Spanish border has a certain relevance. It could cover a lot, explain a lot.

'What do you mean?'

'She was Venezuelan. Carlos's first cousin, his lover since she was fourteen. They were a team, had been for years. I was told she was the only person on earth he cared about'

'A whore. '

'An assassin's instrument I wonder how many targets she set up. How many valuable men are dead because of her. '

'I cannot kill her twice. '

'You can use her. Use her death. '

"The insanity you spoke of?'

'The only insanity is if you throw your life away. Carlos wins it all; he goes on using his gun . . . and sticks of dynamite . . . and you're one more statistic. Another kill added to a long list of distinguished corpses. That's insane. '

'And you're the reasonable man? You assume the guilt for a crime you did not commit? For the death of a whore? Hunted for a killing that was not yours?'

That's part of it, the essential part, actually. '

'Don't talk to me of insanity, young man. I beg you, leave. What you've told me gives me the courage to face Almighty God. If ever a death was justified, it was hers by my hand. I will look into the eyes of Christ and swear it*

'You've written yourself out, then,' said Jason, noticing for the first time the bulge of a weapon in the old man's jacket pocket

'I will not stand trial, if that's what you mean. '

'Oh, that's perfect, General! Carlos himself couldn't have come up with anything better! Not a wasted motion on his part; he doesn't even have to use his own gun. But those who count will know he did it; he caused it*

Those who count will know nothing. Raisons du coeur.

Maladie. I am not concerned with the tongues of killers and thieves. '

'And if I told the truth? Told why you killed her!'

'Who would listen? Even should you live to speak. I'm not a fool, Monsieur Bourne. You are running from more than Carlos. You are hunted by many, not just one. You as much as told me so. You would not tell me your name . . . for my own safety, you claimed. When and if this was over, you said, it was 7 who might not care to be seen with you. Those are not the words of a man in whom much trust is placed. '

'You trusted me. '

'I told you why,' said Villiers, glancing away, staring at his dead wife. 'It was in your eyes. '

The truth?'

The truth. '

"Then look at me now! The truth is still there. On that road to Nanterre, you told me you'd listen to what I had to say because I gave you your life. I'm trying to give it to you again! You can walk away free, untouched, go on standing for the things you say are important to you, were important to your son. You can win I . . . Don't mistake me, I'm not being noble. Your staying alive and doing what I ask is the only way I can stay alive, the only way I'll ever be free. '

The old soldier looked up. 'Why?'

'I told you I wanted Carlos because something was taken from me - something very necessary to my life, my sanity -and he was the cause of it. That's the truth -1 believe it's the truth - but it's not the whole truth. There are other people involved, some decent, some not, and my agreement with them was to get Carlos, trap Carlos. They want what you want. But something happened that I can't explain - I won't try to explain - and those people think I betrayed them. They think I made a pact with Carlos, that I stole millions from them, and killed others who were my links to them. They have men everywhere, and the orders are to execute me on sight. You were right. I'm running from more than Carlos. I'm hunted by men I don't know and can't see. For all the wrong reasons . . . I didn't do the things they say I did, but no one wants to listen. I have no pact with Carlos; you know I don't!'

Tags: Robert Ludlum, Eric Van Lustbader Jason Bourne Thriller