I ran barefoot after the thief.
But here’s a life lesson.
Kitten heels and cobblestones don’t go together.
Never have. Never will.
And since there was no way to avoid the treacherous ancient walkways, I just kicked off my shoes and kept going. Making matters worse, the narrow, wet street twisted upward in a brutal S curve, but I managed to keep the dark gray sweatshirt in sight as my quarry plunged through the few tourists who’d braved the nasty weather.
Eze was part town, part museum, part a-place-from-another-time. Its shops, galleries, hotels, and cafés attracted people by the busload from around the world. The oldest building dated to the early 1300s, the whole thing just a mere few acres and appearing like something created as an amusement park. The tourist office loved to boast that Walt Disney once spent a lot of time there. Why? Who knows. But I’d like to think it provided a bit of inspiration.
The tiered village nestled high in the clouds above the French Riviera, about halfway between Nice and Monaco, and carried a mystique that I’d always been drawn to. Writers likened it to an eagle’s nest atop a rocky seaside peak. So many had tried to claim its valuable perch. First the Phoenicians, then Greeks, Romans, Italians, Turks, and Moors. By the 14th century the French had gained a firm hold and the House of Savoy fortified it into a stronghold.
From its 430-meter elevation above the sea, an enemy could be seen a day in advance of coming ashore. Its motto was particularly apropos. In death I am reborn. Its emblem was a phoenix perched on a bone. Not exactly Mickey Mouse, but the symbolism seemed to fit this charming piece of the past.
I kept running.
Thankfully, I stayed in shape. Not three miles every day, but at least every other. But that was usually on flat French terrain. This obstacle course was a different story. Still, I was gaining on the bastard.
And I’d get him.
The thief disappeared over a crest.
A black thunder cloud rolled across the sky. Rain continued to pour down in ever-increasing sheets, the water filling the drains at either side of the shiny cobblestones, rushing downward in two swift currents. A sharp flash overhead was followed by another thunder clap which rattled glass in the olden buildings. I came to the crest and started downhill, the winding twists working even harder against me.
Bare feet and wet rocks don’t mix either.
Gray Sweatshirt was wearing rubber-soled sneakers. New ones, I’d noticed earlier. Not a mark on them. Working like wings at the moment, providing sure footing. He was toting the knapsack he’d carried into the museum, which surely still held the wooden box. What a way to spend what was supposed to be a relaxing day with an old friend.
I wasn’t sure of Nicodème’s age. Maybe mid-eighties. I’d never asked, though he’d been around nearly my whole life. He was a gnarled, walking stick of a man with a face like the pummeled look of an unfinished sculpture topped by a mop of unkempt white hair. My father, doing what wealthy men did, had been a collector of rare coins, stamps, and books as well as ancient Egyptian and Roman glass and pottery. Nicodème had long been a dealer in all of those and visited us several times a year in Spain, always bringing curiosities for my father’s perusal, staying with us a few days, telling stories of the world, then leaving with more money than when he’d arrived.
Knowing how much I loved perfume, he never failed to bring me a flacon of some kind. My favorite was still the tiny quartz bottle with a black jade stopper that hung from a silver chain, which I wore often. Opened, I could catch a whiff of the original formula it had once held. I’d never filled it with anything else for fear of losing that faint suggestion of that long lost scent. My curiosity about scents began as a child when my mother gave me my first bottle of cologne. A light floral lemon with a hint of orange blossom. Expectations. A curious name. But one I never forgot.
A jolt of pain surged up my right leg.
Something had bruised the bottom of my foot. Aware of the fragility of ankles and the price of stumbling, I slowed and reached down, applying pressure which resulted in more pain.
I kept going.
More of that self-discipline I’d taught myself through too many life lessons and bad decisions to count.
My target remained in my sights about thirty meters ahead. I stumbled on a cracked cobble and nearly lost my balance, but I wasn’t going to stop. This thief had stolen something invaluable. How did I know that? Nicodème’s instructions as I’d bolted from the shop.
Get it back. No matter what.
His air of urgency unmistakable.
Nicodème’s shop sat at the end of one of Eze’s oldest streets, against the outer wall, pressed to the mountain, where not all that many tourists ventured. The thief had knocked, entered, and examined what he’d come to see—a wooden box waiting for him on the counter. He was polite and asked intelligent questions. Which raised no alarm bells, as antique dealers were the shop’s main customers.
He even provided a name.
Nicodème never advertised and no signage identified the building or business other than a bronze number 16. The door stayed locked and all visits were by appointment only. Hildick-Smith had scheduled his last week, there to see some of the ancient glass, as he’d heard Nicodème stocked quite a bit.
Which was true.
The display cases were filled with rare antique bottles, glasses, bowls, jugs, and jars. Differing styles and craftsmanship from around the world. The shelves were stacked with catalogs and books about glass, pottery, and carved stone. A reference library any museum would be envious to own. Hildick-Smith, though, had come to see something in particular, something that he’d confirmed was there at the time of the appointment.
A wooden box.
Rectangular shaped, fashioned of shiny rosewood, the cover inlaid with cabochon stones—amethysts, moonstones, garnets, and sapphires.
From the back of the shop. In what Nicodème called the Museum of Mysteries.
Where access to the front was by invitation, only people who possessed treasures Nicodème was trying to acquire, or scholars who harbored information about treasures already ensconced, were invited into the museum itself. Few of the locals living in Eze knew the stone house and storefront, located at #16 on Rue de Barri, harbored a secret museum. Nor did they know that the elderly antique dealer, Nicodème L’Etoile, was also a mystic whose passion was collecting supposedly powerful and sometimes dangerous portents from the past.
I even knew of a few.
Things like a portrait, drawn by da Vinci in chalk created from mummies, which bestowed great physical power to anyone who gazed upon it. Greek fire, invented in the 7th century by the Byzantines, that produced a flame water was unable to quench. A collection of evil eye talismans that dated back to ancient times, said to have belonged to witches. And the Spear of Destiny that Charlemagne, Napoleon, and Hitler believed turned an ordinary man into a superhuman leader. When I’d pointed out that there was already such a spear on display at the Hofburg in Vienna, he’d merely smiled and said beware of fakes.
The L’Etoile family traced its roots back to the 13th century. The name carried a popular familiarity thanks to a branch of the family that came to fame in the early 18th century as perfumers to royalty. L’Etoile fragrances became known worldwide and their shop on the Left Bank in Paris remained one of the most famous perfume destinations in the world.
And one of my personal favorites.
Fifty years after the French Revolution one member of the family, Sebastian L’Etoile, settled in Eze, opening a shop to sell his brother’s fragrances. Eventually, he branched out and founded the Museum of Mysteries, mainly as a place to store artifacts brought back from expeditions to Egypt. Sebastian rediscovered a tunnel that extended from the back of the shop into the mountain, closed off long ago by an avalanche, perfect as a repository. So an entrance was created from the shop. A door, with no knob, no knocker, no lock. Just oak panels bound by iron. Which only the curator could open through a complicated puzzle that predated Sebastian L’Etoile’s rediscovery.
Curiosity had gotten the better of me, and so some research had revealed that, in the 5th century, some of the women of Eze, after being branded witches, had used the tunnel as an escape route down to the sea. Their stories were told through carvings in the walls, which Nicodème had allowed me to see. Goodbye messages. Parting advice. Recipes for spells and potions. Final messages to those they were leaving behind. Seeing them at once both moving and hopeful. Now the old tunnel contained over three hundred rare objects.
One of them apparently gone.
Being carted away, through a rainstorm, across the streets of Eze by a thief.
Hildick-Smith hung a left at a fork in the street, which gave me hope. I knew Eze, every warren of turns and alleyways, every dead end. Clearly my quarry wasn’t as well versed since he’d just chosen one of the inescapable routes, this one ending at a viewing platform where tourists could gaze at the valley below, the towns in the distance, and the endless sea and sky.
I took the same left and saw Hildick-Smith ahead.
He stopped running, then casually joined a small group of visitors with umbrellas enjoying the scenic vista. I slowed, caught my breath, and approached. To gain control of the wooden box, Hildick-Smith had drawn a pistol in the shop and held both me and Nicodème at bay. If threatened, he might use his weapon. My instincts told me to shout for the people to clear out so I could deal with the problem. But approaching I suddenly realized something.
He was gone.
I reached the railing and looked down at the twisty footpath about three meters below. I knew that it led from Eze down to the sea, about a ninety-minute trek. The dubious Philosopher’s Walk. Legend held that the famed German, William Nietzsche, would hike the zigzagging path among the trees every day in summer. The exercise and heat supposedly providing inspiration to organize his thoughts. Beyond its edge was a sheer drop down of several hundred meters. Today, the danger was amplified by steel-gray rain slanting down through the trees.
I saw Hildick-Smith, clutching the knapsack to his chest, navigating the stone-riddled path. Not running, but definitely hurrying in and out of the trees. I followed suit, doing what he’d obviously done, and hopped the railing, landing on more hard rock.
Which hurt my bare feet.
I headed after him, the shock of each stride sliding up through my bones, the pain tearing into my lungs, heart hammering, the sucking of each breath beginning to match the beat of my legs. I could only imagine the condition of the bottom of my soles.
Ahead, my target disappeared as the twisty path continued its descent. The storm seemed to have scared off all other hikers. At the next bend there was no sign of him. No movement anywhere. Just the hills, the trees, the sea beyond, and the rain overhead.
He has the elixirs.
That’s what Nicodème had said as I left.
I’d come to Eze simply to have lunch with an old friend. It was our special thing. About once a month, whenever I was home in France, not traveling. My passion was the rebuilding of a medieval castle using only 13th century materials and technology. I have degrees in medieval architecture, so the design was my own. Every meter of the thick walls and corner towers had been fashioned by hand from the nearby water, stone, earth, sand, and wood. I employed quarriers, blacksmiths, masons, stone hewers, potters, and carpenters who worked year round. The costs were enormous. Luckily my parents left me with more money than I could ever spend. So I’d decided to put some of it to historical use. And I was making progress. About thirty percent of the castle now stood, but it would take another twenty years to finish.
Which was fine.
It wasn’t the destination, but the journey that interested me.
The drive from my home in Givors to Eze was several hours, but it was lovely through the Côte D’Azur region, the Alps rising on one side, the Mediterranean stretching out on the other. My visit today had a dual purpose since Nicodème had told me that he’d acquired some exquisite 15th century tiles that he thought might be perfect for one of the buildings. He’d helped me many times over the years with the castle. I appreciated his interest as his suggestions were always on target.
“What is this?” I had asked, pointing to the wooden box on the counter before Hildick-Smith arrived. “It looks like something my father would have loved.”
“He would have. The box itself is medieval, probably 13th century. But what’s inside dates back much further. It’s filled with ancient potions used by healers.”
“Witches,” I’d whispered.
The wise women had always interested me—maligned by men who didn’t understand their talents, sexuality, or intelligence. Not witches. Merely observant experts in the healing arts, which had far more to do with chemistry than magic. I’d borrowed a few books from Nicodème’s shelves over the years about the dark arts and its various practitioners. What was the most common charge from the time? As a ghost, they appeared and disappeared.
Just like Hildick-Smith.
What was happening here? That wooden box? Elixirs?
“This could be a most important item,” Nicodème had said to Hildick-Smith, touching the lid of the intriguing box.
“I heard you acquired it a few years ago. So I came to see if you would sell it to me.”
“I’m afraid not.”
“I’ll double what you paid for it.”
“It is not for sale.”
A moment later Peter Hildick-Smith drew a gun, took the box, and fled the shop.
Now he was gone.