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The Rusted Beetle
About the Author: James Nolan’s mystery stories have been short-listed for a Shamus Award, and have appeared in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, Mystery Weekly Magazine, and New Orleans Noir, as well as in his award-winning collections You Don’t Know Me and Perpetual Care. His comic noir novel Higher Ground won a Faulkner/Wisdom Gold Medal, and his twelfth book, Flight Risk: Memoirs of a New Orleans Bad Boy, was given the 2018 Next-Generation Indie Book Award for Best Memoir. He lives in his native New Orleans.

Today the only sign of life in this twelfth-century village is the man with the black backpack who creaks open the door to the empty church just after I step inside. Little do I suspect at the moment, but he’s the last person on earth I’d ever expect to run across in a remote place like this. You see, nobody knows I’m staying on this hilltop in Provence, which is why I’m here. The credit card trail I left after landing in Marseilles would be the only way anyone could verify I’m in France, although there’s nowhere to use a credit card in tiny St. Julien.

I’m off the map.

I didn’t count on the Mistral, the icy wind that started to bluster and roar the day after I moved in. This is the wind that drove Van Gogh mad, although I haven’t gotten to the point of cutting off my own ear, not yet. The way I imagined life in St. Julien, I would take walks along stony goat paths lined with spring wild flowers until Vivian fends off my henchmen and that nasty business in San Francisco blows over. Until the world forgets that I exist. That was why I traveled with my passport everywhere I went in the United States: So when my real estate pyramid crashed and investors came looking for me, I could hop on a plane to Paris. But once it happened, Paris seemed too obvious, so I entered France through Marseilles and then kept driving until I landed here.

Former altar boy that I am, I believe in miracles.

A gust of frigid air fills the dusty nave when the massive church door heaves open. An icicle creeps up my spine. I’m studying a sign below a statue of the Virgin, one that describes what occurred here in 1697 when a fiery wind incinerated the church. But after the blaze was extinguished, thirty-two consecrated Hosts survived in the monstrance on the altar. The Vatican recognized that miracle in a ceremony after the church was reconstructed, and I can picture the town’s windmill operators on their knees before the Papal emissary, touched by the finger of God.

The man with the backpack is of slight build, his gray hair pulled back into a ponytail from a receding hairline. He perches a pair of bifocals on the beak of his aquiline nose, circling the church several steps behind mine. As if performing the Stations of the Cross, we stop to study the same statues and read the plaques, never glancing at each other. Then, as if not to cross my path, he creeps out of the cobwebby church as quietly as he entered, leaving me standing in a ray of auburn sunlight that bursts through the red pane in a stained-glass window.

He’s the only visitor I’ve spotted in the village since I arrived. Because of the howling Mistral, even the café is closed, the only business within the narrow cobblestone lanes of steeply inclined streets. At four o’clock every afternoon, a handful of elderly men gather outside the café with clacking metal balls to play pétanque—that’s the extent of village life.

If I want to hide from the world, I’ve chosen the perfect spot.

When I leave the church, I walk through a rusty gate into a small cemetery along the back wall, one that looks out over the sloped terraces of lavender fields that stretch toward the hazy horizon. Ici repose …” I read, circling among the moldy headstones, most mounted with tinted photo medallions of craggy old ladies buried here during the forties and fifties.

The man with the black backpack slips into the cemetery, circling the grave markers as I’ve been doing. Although my French is limited, I’m about to greet him when he disappears through the open gate. In the most forlorn landscapes, the appearance of another human can overpower either with enthusiasm or fear. And a rush of human warmth isn’t what I’m feeling at the moment.

It’s more like dread.

The Mistral slices through the elms that line the way back to the stone house I’m renting. Purple lilacs and white irises sprout among the fragrant rosemary and thyme, as if the countryside is smiling in the teeth of the unforgiving wind. I stop at a bench overlooking the valley below to watch the sun streak orange and pink as it sinks behind the treetops below. I wrap the gauzy scarf twice around my neck, sinking my hands deep into the pockets of my denim jacket.

The man with the black backpack appears out of nowhere and sits at the opposite end of the bench. I recognize his sandals: Birkenstocks worn over paisley wool socks.

This story appears in our MAY 2020 Issue
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