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Read The Excerpt: Central Park by Guillaume Musso

Alice

FIRST, A GUST of wind stings her face.

The light rustling of leaves. The distant murmur of a stream. The quiet trill of birdsong. The first rays of sunlight illuminating the tiny blood vessels in her still-closed eyelids.

Then the creak of swaying branches. The smell of moist earth, rotting leaves. The strong, woody odor of gray lichen.

And farther off, an indistinct buzzing, dreamlike and discordant.

Alice Schafer opened her eyes with difficulty. She was blinded by the early-morning sun, her clothes sticky with dew. The frozen sweat on her skin made her shiver. Her throat was dry and her mouth filled with the harsh taste of ashes. Her joints were bruised, her limbs stiff, her mind numb.

When she tried to sit up, she became aware that she was lying on a rough wooden bench. Suddenly, she realized that a large, sturdy man was curled up next to her, his body leaning heavily on hers.

Alice stifled a cry and her pulse raced. Trying to free herself, she toppled over onto the ground and stood up in the same movement. That was when she realized that her right wrist was handcuffed to the left wrist of this stranger. She took a step back, but the man remained motionless.

Shit!

Her heart was pounding in her chest. A glance at her watch—the face of her old Patek was scratched, but the mechanism still worked. According to the watch, it was eight a.m. on Tuesday, October 8.

Jesus Christ! Where the hell am I? she wondered, using a sleeve to wipe the sweat from her face.

She looked around in an attempt to assess the situation. She was in the middle of a forest, the leaves on the trees autumn gold, the undergrowth fresh and dense. A wild, silent clearing surrounded by oaks, thick bushes, and jutting rocks. There was no one else here, which was probably a good thing, considering the circumstances.

Alice looked up. The light was soft, beautiful, almost unreal. Shards of brightness sparkled through the foliage of a huge flame-colored elm tree. Its roots disappeared into a carpet of damp leaves.

Where was she? She hazarded a few guesses: The forest of Rambouillet? Fontainebleau? The bois de Vincennes?

It was like an Impressionist painting on a postcard, the serenity of the image clashing with the surreal weirdness of waking up next to a total stranger.

Cautiously, she leaned forward to get a better view of his face. He was in his late thirties, she thought. Disheveled chestnut hair and the beginnings of a beard.

A corpse?

She knelt down and placed two fingers on his neck, to the right of his Adam’s apple. When she pressed down on the carotid artery, she felt a pulse. Relief. The guy was sleeping but alive. She took a moment to look at him more closely. Did she know him? Some thug she was taking to jail? A childhood friend whose face she’d forgotten? No, his features were completely unfamiliar to her.

Alice pushed back a few stray blond locks that had fallen over her eyes, then examined the pair of metal handcuffs that connected her to the man. It was a standard double-locking model, a type used by police departments and private security firms all over the world. Most likely, this was her own pair. Alice rummaged in her jeans pocket, hoping to find the key.

It wasn’t there. She did, however, find a gun in the inside pocket of her leather jacket. Thinking it must be her service pistol, she sighed with relief as she gripped the butt. But this was not the SIG Sauer used by cops in the Paris Criminal Division. It was a polymer Glock .22, and she had no idea where it had come from. She wanted to check the magazine, but it was difficult with one hand shackled. She did eventually manage it, after a few contortions, taking care not to wake the stranger. One bullet missing. As she handled the pistol, she became aware that the butt was stained with dried blood. Unzipping her jacket all the way, she discovered that there were traces of blood all over her blouse.

My God, what have I done?

Alice rubbed her eyes with her free hand. A migraine was throbbing in her temples now. She felt as if her skull were being crushed in an invisible vise. She took deep breaths, trying to push back her fear, gather her memories.

The night before, she had gone out on the Champs-Élysées with three girlfriends. She’d had plenty to drink, downing glass after glass in a series of bars: the Moonlight, the Thirteenth Floor, the Londonderry…around midnight, the four friends had gone their separate ways. She had been alone when she’d headed to the underground parking garage on Avenue Franklin-Roosevelt, where she’d left her car. And then…

A blank. As if someone had dropped a black veil over her brain. Her mind floundered in the void. Her memory was paralyzed, frozen, jammed on that final image.

Come on, think, for God’s sake! What happened next?

She had a distinct memory of paying at the ticket machine, then walking downstairs to the third underground level. She had been drunk, without a doubt. After staggering over to her little Audi, she had unlocked the door, sat behind the wheel, and…

Nothing.

No matter how hard she tried to concentrate, a white brick wall barred the way to her memories. A vast, unclimbable wall.

She swallowed. Her panic level went up a notch. These woods, the bloodstains on her blouse, this gun that wasn’t hers…whatever was going on, it was a hell of a lot worse than an ordinary hangover. If she couldn’t remember how she had ended up here, she must have been drugged. Maybe some creep had spiked her drink. It was far from impossible—as a cop, she’d dealt with several cases involving date-rape drugs in recent years. She filed this idea away in a corner of her mind and began emptying her pockets.

Her wallet and her police badge had disappeared. No ID, no money, no cell phone.

Her fear was compounded by worry.

The crack of a branch sent a flock of warblers flying. A few red leaves fluttered down, brushing Alice’s face. With her left hand, she zipped up her jacket, holding the top of it down with her chin. That was how she came to notice the writing, in faded ballpoint, on the palm of her hand—a series of numbers, scrawled on the fly, as if she were some schoolkid trying to cheat on a test:

2125550100

What did they mean? Had she written them? Maybe, but I can’t be sure, she thought, examining the handwriting.

She closed her eyes for a second, feeling lost and frightened.

But she refused to give in to her fears. Obviously, something serious had occurred last night. She remembered nothing, but the man she was handcuffed to would soon refresh her memory. She hoped so, anyway.

Friend or foe?

There was no way of knowing, so she slid the magazine back into the Glock. With her free hand, she pointed the gun at her companion’s head before unceremoniously shaking him.

“Hey! You! Time to wake up!” she said in French.

The man was struggling to open his eyes.

“Come on!” she yelled. “Wake up, asshole!”

He blinked a few times and stifled a yawn before painfully sitting up. His face registered shock as he saw the barrel of the gun a few inches from his forehead.

He stared at Alice, wide-eyed, then turned his head from side to side, apparently flabbergasted by the sight of the surrounding woods.

After a few seconds of shocked silence, he gulped. Then he opened his mouth and asked in English: “Who the hell are you? And what are we doing here?”

Gabriel

THE STRANGER HAD spoken with a strong American accent.

“Where the hell are we?” he demanded, frowning.

Alice tightened her fingers around the butt of the gun. “That’s what I’m asking you!” she replied in English, bringing the barrel of the Glock closer to his temple.

“Whoa, calm down, okay?” he said, raising his hands. “And put the gun down. Those things are dangerous, you know.”

Still sleepy-eyed, he pointed with his chin at the steel bracelet around his wrist. “Why did you cuff me? What’d I do this time? Did I get in a fight? Was I drunk?”

I didn’t cuff you,” she replied.

Alice looked him over. He was wearing dark jeans, a pair of Converse sneakers, a crumpled blue shirt, and a fitted suit jacket. His eyes were clear and engaging but had dark rings of fatigue under them.

“Kinda cold out here,” he complained, hunching his shoulders. He looked down at his wrist to check his watch, but it wasn’t there. “Shit…what time is it?”

“Eight in the morning.”

As best he could, he went through his pockets before exclaiming angrily: “What the hell! You’ve taken everything! My cash, my wallet, my phone…”

“I haven’t stolen anything from you,” Alice assured him. “They got me too.”

“And there’s a pretty big bump on the back of my head,” he noted, rubbing his skull with his free hand. “Let me guess—that wasn’t you either?”

He watched her from the corner of his eye. Dressed in tight jeans and a leather jacket, beneath which he could see a bloodstained blouse, Alice was a slender blonde, her hair in a ponytail that was on the point of coming undone. Her face was hard but harmonious—high cheekbones, thin nose, pale skin—and her eyes, spangled with the copper reflections of the autumn leaves, shone intensely.

His thoughts were interrupted by a sudden pain, a burning sensation running up the inside of his forearm.

“What now?” She sighed.

“It hurts.” He grimaced. “Like I’m wounded or something.”

Because of the handcuffs, Gabriel couldn’t take off his jacket or roll up the sleeves of his shirt, but through a series of contortions he managed to see a sort of bandage encircling his arm. The dressing looked like it was freshly applied, but a thin trickle of blood had escaped and was running down to his wrist.

“All right, I’ve had enough of this bullshit!” he said angrily. “Tell me where we are. Wicklow?”

The young woman shook her head. “Wicklow? Where’s that?”

“A national park in the south,” he said.

“South of what?” she asked.

“Are you kidding me? South of Dublin!”

She stared at him, wide-eyed. “You really think we’re in Ireland?”

He sighed. “Where else would we be?”

“Well, in France, I’d guess. Near Paris. In the forest of Rambouillet, or—”

“Oh, give me a break!” he interrupted. “And who are you exactly?”

“A girl with a gun. So I’m the one who asks the questions.”

He stared at her defiantly but, realizing that he was not in control of this situation, stopped talking.

“My name is Alice Schafer. I’m a police captain in the Paris Criminal Division. I spent the evening with friends on the Champs-Élysées. I don’t know where we are or how we got here, handcuffed together. And I don’t have the faintest idea who you are. Your turn.”

After a few seconds of hesitation, the stranger decided to reciprocate.

“I’m American. My name is Gabriel Keyne and I’m a jazz pianist. I live in Los Angeles, but I spend a lot of time on the road, playing gigs.”

“And what’s the last thing you remember?” she demanded.

Gabriel frowned and closed his eyes in concentration. “Let me see…last night, I played with my bassist and my saxophone player at Brown Sugar, a jazz club in Temple Bar—it’s a part of Dublin.”

Dublin? This guy is crazy!

“After the concert, I sat at the bar and maybe had a few too many rum and Cokes,” Gabriel went on, opening his eyes.

“And then?”

“And then…” His face tensed and he chewed his lip. Evidently, he was finding it as hard as she had to remember the end of his evening.

“Listen, I don’t know. I think I may have gotten into a fight with a guy who didn’t like my music, then I talked to a few girls, but I was too wasted to actually pick one up.”

“Wow, very classy. What a charming guy you are.”

He waved away her sarcasm with a casual hand and stood up, forcing Alice to do the same. With an abrupt movement of her forearm, she forced him to sit down again.

“I left the club around midnight,” he said. “I could barely stand up. I looked for a taxi in Aston Quay. After a few minutes, a car pulled up and…”

“And what?”

“I don’t know,” he admitted. “I must have given the driver the address of my hotel and passed out in the back seat.”

“And what do you remember after that?”

“Nothing, I’m telling you!”

Alice lowered her weapon and was silent for a few seconds as she digested this bad news. Clearly, this guy was not going to help her get to the bottom of this situation.

“You do realize that everything you’ve just told me is a huge pile of crap?” she said with a smile.

“Oh yeah? And why’s that?”

“Because we’re in France—look!”

Gabriel’s gaze swept the woods that stretched all around them: the wild vegetation, the dense bushes, the rock walls covered with ivy, the golden dome formed by the autumn leaves. His eyes scaled the length of a giant elm tree and he glimpsed two squirrels racing, leaping from branch to branch in pursuit of a robin.

“I’ll bet you my shirt that we’re not in France,” he said, scratching his head.

“Well, there’s only one way to find out,” Alice replied irritably, putting her gun in her jacket pocket and dragging Gabriel up from the bench.

They left the clearing and dove into the jungle of dense thickets and leafy shrubs. Cuffed together, they crossed through rolling undergrowth, followed a climbing path, then walked down the other side of the hill, holding on to rocks as they went. It took them a good ten minutes of stepping over little streams and striding along several winding trails to find a way out of this wooded labyrinth. Finally, they came out on a narrow asphalt path bordered by trees that created a leafy vault over their heads. The farther they walked along this paved track, the closer they drew to the sounds of civilization, to the familiar and ever louder buzz of a city.

Propelled by a strange intuition, Alice led Gabriel toward a sunny gap in the foliage. A path led from this clearing to what looked like the grassy bank of a lake.

That was when they saw it.

A cast-iron footbridge arching gracefully over the lake, long and cream-colored, subtly decorated with arabesques and flower urns.

A familiar sight, glimpsed in hundreds of movies.

Bow Bridge.

They weren’t in Paris. And they weren’t in Dublin either.

They were in New York.

They were in Central Park.

Central Park West

JESUS CHRIST!” GABRIEL breathed, while Alice’s face was a picture of astonishment.

It might have been difficult to admit the reality, but there could no longer be any doubt. They were in the Ramble, the wildest area of Central Park—a genuine thirty-eight-acre forest stretching out north of the lake.

Their hearts pounded in unison. They approached the bank and arrived at a busy path, typical of the park’s early-morning energy. Joggers coexisted harmoniously with cyclists, tai chi enthusiasts, and people walking dogs. The sounds of a big city seemed to explode in their ears: rumbling traffic, honking horns, screaming fire-engine and police-car sirens.

“This is insane,” Alice muttered.

Disoriented, she tried to think. While she and Gabriel had both been very drunk the night before, to the point where they could not remember everything they’d done, it was inconceivable that they could have been put on an airplane against their will. She had often come to New York on vacation with Seymour, her colleague and best friend. She knew that a Paris–New York flight lasted just over eight hours, but given the time difference, one seemed to land only two hours after takeoff. Usually, when she and Seymour flew together, Seymour would book the 8:30 a.m. flight from Charles de Gaulle airport that arrived in New York at 10:30 a.m. The last international flight left Paris just before 8:00 p.m. But at that time the previous evening, she had still been in Paris. Which meant that she and Gabriel had been flown over on a private jet. Assuming they had been put on a plane in Paris at 2:00 a.m., they would have arrived in New York at 4:00 a.m. local time—early enough for them to wake up in Central Park at 8:00 a.m. On paper, it wasn’t impossible. But in reality? Even for a private jet, the red tape involved in entering the United States was complicated. Something did not add up here.

“Oh, sorry!”

A young man on Rollerblades had just bumped into them. Mid-apology, he shot a surprised and suspicious look at their handcuffs.

An alarm went off in Alice’s head.

“We can’t just stay here like this, in plain sight,” she said. “We’ll be arrested in under a minute.”

“What do you suggest?”

“Quick, take my hand!”

“Huh?”

“Hold my hand—pretend we’re a couple,” she said brusquely. “Now, let’s cross the bridge.”

This was what they did. The air was crisp and dry. The outlines of Central Park West’s luxurious buildings stood out against the pure blue sky: the two towers of the San Remo, the legendary façade of the Dakota, the art deco apartments of the Majestic.

“Don’t you think we should tell the police anyway?” Gabriel asked, continuing to move forward.

“Oh yeah, great idea! Let’s throw ourselves to the lions!”

“You should listen to the voice of reason, babe—”

“Call me that again and I’ll strangle you with these handcuffs! I’ll crush your throat until your face turns blue. You won’t spout so much crap when you’re dead.”

He ignored the threat. “You should at least check in with the French embassy.”

“Not until we’ve worked out what really happened last night.”

“Well, don’t count on me to play along with your little game. As soon as we’re out of the park, I’m going to the first police station we see and telling them everything.”

“Are you really this dumb or are you just pretending? In case you haven’t noticed, we are handcuffed together, you moron! We’re inseparable! So until we find a way to break the chain, you will do as I do.”

Bow Bridge was a gentle transition between the wild vegetation of the Ramble and the neatly arranged gardens south of the lake. At the end of the bridge, they took the path that ran along the lake up to the granite dome of the Cherry Hill Fountain.

“I don’t understand—why won’t you go to the cops with me?” Gabriel asked.

“Because I know what the police will do.”

“But what gives you the right to drag me into your mess?” the musician protested.

“How is it my mess? I may be in shit up to my neck, but so are you.”

“Not at all. I haven’t done anything wrong.”

“Oh yeah? How can you be so sure? I thought you couldn’t remember what happened last night.”

This reply seemed to throw Gabriel off balance. “Are you saying you don’t believe me?”

“Why should I? All that bullshit about being in a bar in Dublin? It doesn’t make any sense, Keyne.”

“It makes about as much sense as your story about going out on the Champs-Élysées! And anyway, you’re the one with blood on your hands. And a gun in your pocket. And—”

“Yeah, well, at least we can agree on that point,” she interrupted. “I’m the one with the gun, so shut your mouth and do exactly what I tell you, okay?”

He shrugged and let out a long sigh of irritation.

Swallowing, Alice felt a burning sensation in her chest and tasted acid at the back of her throat. Stress. Exhaustion. Fear.

How was she going to get out of this fix?

She tried to think straight. In France now, it was early afternoon. The guys on her team must have been surprised when she didn’t show up at work this morning. Seymour would have tried calling her cell phone. She had to get in touch with him as soon as possible; he was the one she wanted to investigate this thing. In her head, she began to formulate a checklist: (1) get a hold of the security-camera footage for the Franklin-Roosevelt parking garage; (2) make a list of all the private airplanes that had left Paris for the United States after midnight; (3) locate the place where her Audi had been abandoned; and (4) do a background check on this Gabriel Keyne and find out if he was telling the truth.

The prospect of this investigative work calmed her down a little. For a long time now, the adrenaline rush she got from her job had been her main fuel. In the past, it had been like a drug, and her addiction to it had wrecked her life, but these days it was the only real reason she had to get out of bed in the mornings.

She took a deep breath of the cool Central Park air.

Relieved that the cop inside her was now taking charge, she began to hone her plans: Seymour, under her orders, would investigate the story in France, and she would find out what she could on this side of the Atlantic.

Still walking hand in hand, Alice and Gabriel reached the triangular garden of Strawberry Fields and exited the park on the west side. The cop kept stealing glances at the musician. She absolutely had to find out who this man was. Was he the one who had cuffed them together? And if so, why?

He gave her a brazen look. “So what exactly do you have in mind?”

She replied with a question of her own: “Do you know anyone in this city?”

“Yeah, actually, one of my best friends lives here—a saxophone player named Kenny Forrest. Unfortunately he’s on tour in Tokyo at the moment.”

She rephrased her question: “So you don’t know anyone who can help us get out of these handcuffs or give us a place to shower and change our clothes?”

“No,” he admitted. “How about you?”

“I live in Paris, I already told you that!”

“I live in Paris, I already told you that!” he mimicked in a snooty French accent. “Listen, lady, I don’t see how we can avoid going to the police. We have no money, no change of clothes, no way to prove our identities—”

“Oh, quit whining. Let’s start by getting a cell phone, okay?”

“And how are we supposed to do that? We don’t have a cent between us!”

“Simple. We just have to steal one.”


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