“The ideal mix of the personal, the political, the puzzling and the Parisian make Aimée’s latest a perfect pleasure.”
—Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
“Aimée is a fantastic guide as she invites the reader along on an excursion of Paris on the back of her scooter, which most tourists traveling to the City of Light never see. Back streets and alleys, smoky bistros and Paris mansions set the backdrop for this mystery.”
—New York Journal of Books
The village-like neighborhood of Passy, home to many of Paris’s wealthiest residents, is the last place one would expect a murder. But when Aimée Leduc’s godfather, Morbier, a police commissaire, asks her to check on his girlfriend at her home there, that’s exactly what Aimée finds. Xavierre, a haut bourgeois matron of Basque origin, is strangled in her garden while Aimée waits inside. Circumstantial evidence makes Morbier the prime suspect, and to vindicate him, Aimée must identify the real killer. Her investigation leads her to police corruption; the radical Basque terrorist group, ETA; and a kidnapped Spanish princess.
Monday Early Evening
The doorbells tinkled as Aimée Leduc stepped inside the cheese shop from the cold and inhaled the warm, pungent odors. A radio blared the evening news: “. . . evading seven roadblocks erected after the shootout in the Imprimerie Nationale documents heist. In other breaking news, a radical faction. . . .”
She shivered, nodding to pink-faced, rotund Victor, standing in his white apron behind the counter. Bombings, shoot-outs, she hated to think what else—and to make it worse, just before the holidays.
“World’s gone crazy.” Victor shook his head. “The usual?” He gestured to a runny rind on grape leaves standing on the marbletopped counter: “Or this?”
Aimée tasted the Brie dripping on the white waxed paper. “C’est parfait.”
She emerged from the shop into the evening mist and rounded the corner toward her office on rue du Louvre. The reflections of the furred yellow orbs of streetlights glowed on the wet pavement.
“About time, Leduc.” Morbier, her godfather and a police commissaire, his black wool coat beaded with moisture, paced before her building door. An unmarked Peugeot with a driver, engine thrumming, waited at the curb.
“More like five minutes early, Morbier.” The chill autumn wind cut a swathe through the street of nineteenth-century buildings. Passersby hurried along, bundled in overcoats.
A look she couldn’t read crossed his face. “We’ve got a situation in Lyon. I’m late. You’ve got the file, Leduc?”
Forget the apéritif she’d expected in the corner café! She brushed away her disappointment. So they would do the exchange in the cold, wet street. She handed Morbier a manila envelope containing the supposed ten-year-old letters and photo of her “brother” Julian. It was time to let the professionals handle the only copies she had, so she could find out once and for all if they were genuine. “A week for lab authentication, Morbier?”
In return, he showed her an engraved business card reading police paper forensics division head paul bert. “Bert’s the leading forgery expert. That’s all I know.”
She nodded; she couldn’t push it. He was doing her a favor. “Time for a quick espresso?” She pointed to the lit windows under the café’s awning, which was now whipping in the wind.
Morbier shook his head. Under the thick salt-and-pepper hair, his face appeared more lined in the streetlight; dark circles showed under his eyes. “You think life finally makes sense, then . . . alors,” he shrugged. “Pouff, it turns upside down.”
“What’s wrong, Morbier?” She wished they were inside the warm café with its fogged-up window instead of standing in the wind. A siren whined in the distance. “A case?”
“Can’t talk about it, Leduc.”
As usual. The streetlight revealed his cuffed corduroys, his mismatched socks, one brown, one black. Morbier was no fashion plate. He hadn’t made a move toward his car. Unlike him.
She sensed something else bothering him. His health? “Did you have that checkup like you promised?”
“Something’s going on with Xavierre,” he said. “I’m worried.”
Taken aback, Aimée fumbled for something to say. She remembered him with his arm around Xavierre, an attractive older woman with dark hair. Xavierre’s laughter, warm smile, and scent of gardenias came back to her.
“Worried over what?”
“She doesn’t answer her phone,” he said.
“Zut! I don’t either, half the time,” she said. “You’re reading too much into it.”
“I need to know what’s going on.”
She’d never seen him like this, like a lovelorn shaggy dog. It was not often that he shared his personal feelings.
“Her daughter’s getting married soon, non?” Aimée rubbed her hands, wishing she’d worn gloves. “You told me yourself last week. She’s busy.” A cloud of diesel exhaust erupted from the Number 74 bus as it paused to board passengers.
“Xavierre’s holding back,” he said. “Something feels wrong, Leduc. When my gut talks, I listen.”
“Like what? You’re thinking she’s in danger?”
“She’s fond of you,” Morbier said. “Help me out, eh?”
He hadn’t answered her question. “But what can I do?”
He pulled a police notepad from his coat pocket and wrote down an address. “Do me a favor. Her daughter’s wedding rehearsal party’s tonight. Go there and talk to Xavierre. She’ll open up to you. If I hadn’t gotten called away to this investigation—”
“Me?” Aimée interrupted.
“How many times have I helped you, Leduc?” he said. “Better get going, the party’s started.”
Why did she always forget that Morbier’s favors had a price?
He pointed to the leather catsuit under her raincoat. “I’d suggest you change into a little black dress, too.”
“You dispensing fashion advice, Morbier?”
But he merely said, “Can I count on you?”
She nodded. And then he climbed in the waiting Peugeot. A moment later it turned and its red taillights disappeared up rue du Louvre. Some kettle of fish, she figured, if they had to summon Morbier to Lyon.
She hit the numbers on the digicode keypad; the door buzzed open. She was tired out: it had been her first day back at work after a month’s recovery from the explosion that had laid her low on her last case. Her shoulders ached; she had a report to file. And now this. But she couldn’t ignore the urgency in Morbier’s voice.
On the third floor, she unlocked Leduc Detective’s frosted glass door. Instead of the dark office she expected, she caught the sweet smell of juniper logs and welcome warmth emanating from glowing embers in the small marble fireplace. “What are
you doing still here, René?”
René Friant, her partner, a dwarf, swiveled his orthopedic chair, his short fingers pausing on the laptop keyboard. “Catching up,” he said. “How did today’s surveillance go?”
He was worried about their computer security contracts, as usual.
“I think you’ll like this.” She slotted the VCR tape into the player. Hit play.
René’s large green eyes scanned the screen. With an absent gesture, he brushed at the crease in his charcoal suit pants, which were tailored to his four-foot height.
“Good work.” René grinned.
She’d had a tête-à-tête with the VP of operations and had planted the video camera in his office, along with a data sniffer on his office computer’s input cable. Now they could monitor his less-than-transparent budget transactions remotely. Their client, the CEO, needed proof of embezzlement.
“So the VP took the bait?”
“Like a big hungry fish, René.” She crinkled her nose in distaste.
“The things I do for computer security!”
René shrugged. “And for a fat check, too. We should be able to document the VP’s sticky fingers in the corporate cookie jar and wrap up our surveillance by Friday, write our report, et voilà.”
He was excited, as always, on a new project. She hadn’t realized how much she’d missed work while spending a month on her back. She had been wounded and René hospitalized after being shot. But René had recuperated at a seaweed Thallasotherapy, a cure courtesy of national health insurance. Noticing his glowing complexion, she wished she’d done that too, instead of attempting to master the new encryption manual while she recovered.
“I need to run an errand for Morbier.” She glanced at the time. “Back in an hour. Then I’ll lock up.”
“Leaving now? You just got here.”
“Eh? Another bad boy? Don’t you learn—”
Was that anger in his voice? She ignored it.
“Not me. Morbier’s worried about Xavierre, wants me to talk to her,” she said. “It’s complicated.”
“You’re serious?” he said. “We’ve got an account to update. And there’s this case.”
“Do you think I don’t know that?” she said. The last thing she wanted was to go back out into the cold. “But Morbier called in a favor.”
She took the half-empty Orangina off her desk, tore off a piece of baguette from inside her bag, unwrapped the white waxed paper, and scooped up a runny wedge of Brie. Dinner.
“Help yourself, René.” She went behind the screen and unzipped the black leather catsuit, peeling the buttery leather from her thighs. She found her little black dress with the scooped neck, vintage Chanel, in the armoire and hooked the last snap
under her arm. She clicked open her LeClerc compact and applied a few upstrokes of mascara.
“Armed in Chanel.” René shook his head. “You look tired.”
So obvious? She noticed the circles under her eyes and dabbed on concealer, ran her rouge noir nails—for once newly lacquered—through her shag-cut hair. She had blond highlights this week, at her coiffeuse’s suggestion. She checked the address on the map in her Paris plan. “40 rue Raynouard, that’s in the 16th arrondissement.”
“Très chic,” René said. “Look, it’s your first day back; let me give you a ride.”
“But it’s out of your way,” she said. “I’ll grab a taxi.”
“Morbier’s my friend too, Aimée,” he said, sounding hurt.
“That’s not the issue, René.”
His health was. He was still using a cane. The case she’d dragged him into last month had resulted in his injuries; she didn’t want that to happen again. “No reason for you to get involved.”
“But I already am.” He shut down his laptop. “My car’s out front.”