“The stylish sleuth in Cara Black’s blithe mysteries set in Paris, is making an odd fashion statement in Murder in Pigalle—ill-fitting frocks and low heels. Almost six months pregnant and showing it… But once the investigation takes a detour into the cavernous sewers of the city, she proves she can still find her way home in the dark.”
—Marilyn Stasio, The New York Times Book Review
“This latest in the treasured Aimée Leduc series keeps to the high standard of the series while nicely deepening Aimée as a character and leading her in a new direction.”
A serial rapist has been terrorizing Paris’s Pigalle neighborhood, following teenage girls home from junior high school and attacking them in their own houses. It is sad and frightening but has nothing to do with Aimée—until Zazie, the 14-year-old daughter of the proprietor of Aimée’s favorite café, disappears. The police aren’t mobilizing quickly enough and when Zazie’s desperate parents approach Aimée for help, she knows she couldn’t say no even if she wanted to. In the frantic race against time that ensues, Aimée discovers a terrifying secret neighborhood history that will leave lives in the whole quartier upended. Inspired by a true crime story of a serial killer who wreaked havoc on Paris in the summer of 1998, Cara Black’s fourteenth Aimée Leduc mystery is a thrilling follow-up to her 2013 New York Times bestseller, Murder Below Montparnasse.
Paris, June 1998. Monday, 1:15 P.M.
Stepping into the shadowed cool of Passage Verdeau, Aimée Leduc welcomed the reprieve from the late-June heat—but not the barrel of the Uzi blocking her way. Stifling a gasp, she clutched her stomach, felt a flutter.
“Mind lowering that?” she said to the CRS riot officer standing in her path.
Dim light filtered through the nineteenth-century passage’s glass roof and onto the cracked mosaic under her heels. The smell of old books hung in the narrow passage, heightening the faded charm of the shop fronts.
“Use the other exit, Mademoiselle … er, Madame.”
What was disrupting traffic this time? Another demonstration? World Cup fever igniting riots? Pre-Fête de la Musique revels? End of exams? There was so much to choose from this week.
She shouldered her secondhand Birkin bag, prenatal vitamins rattling against the mascara tubes and Beretta summer catalogs. “What’s the problem?”
She blinked, recognizing the voice and the face under the riot helmet. “Daniel! You had training wheels on your bike the last time I saw you.” It was her godfather Morbier’s nephew. Fond memories returned of pushing him on a rope swing at her grandmother’s Auvergne farm. “Seems you’ve graduated to new toys.”
“And you’re pregnant, Aimée.” Daniel smiled, slung his Uzi behind his shoulder and kissed both of her cheeks.
“Never thought you’d join the bourgeoisie. Married, eh? Someone I know?”
“It’s complicated.” She averted her eyes. Melac, her baby’s father, didn’t know she was pregnant. He’d taken leave from the Brigade Criminelle to go back to Brittany and sit at his daughter’s hospital bedside—she had been in a coma since a bus accident four months ago.
“Still working, too,” Daniel said.
“Cyber crime never takes a holiday.” Thank God for that, or Leduc Detective would be out of business. “Don’t tell me it’s the sewer workers demonstrating again?” A sigh escaped her as she imagined the choked traffic and tar fumes from the hot pavement.
“Nothing so pungent,” he said. “Security detail.”
Aimée’s eyes widened. In CRS speak that meant there had been a security threat, patrols and surveillance. “A bomb threat?”
Daniel’s eyes veiled. “Nothing that exciting.”
“Allez, Daniel, you used to play with my Lego. Spill.”
Muttering under his breath, he said, “The powers that be don’t relish the City of Light being tarnished by corruption …”
But she didn’t catch the rest, as the commander barked an order to advance. His CRS unit continued forward, toward the Grands Boulevards lined by leafy lime trees. Their thumping boots trampled the fallen blossoms, emitting a waft of citrus.
As Aimée waited at the bus stop near the Opéra, her impatience mounted. Shoppers and office workers filled the zebra-striped crosswalks, traffic clogged the boulevards and, comme toujours, middle-aged hookers plied their trade on rue Joubert behind the Printemps department store. By the time she reached her office building on rue du Louvre, a fine sheen of perspiration dotted her upper lip.
The shaking wire-cage elevator wheezed up to the third floor. Fishing out her compact, she checked her lipstick then stepped out onto the scuffed landing. Leduc Detective’s frosted glass door was open.
René had ordered new shelving for a wall module to make room for the crib, and there was a strange man in overalls tapping away at her office wall. Aimée stifled her irritation. All the baby preparation had become a bone of contention between her and René—like a lot of things these days. It was like he was the one having her baby—eat this, not that; exercise, don’t lift.
Hot recycled air spun from the old fan under the office chandelier, and lemony afternoon light slanted over the parquet floor. She couldn’t wait to nudge off her peep-toe kitten heels, put her feet up and drink something cold. Shuffling noises came from the rear.
A head of curly red hair popped up from behind Aimée’s desk. It belonged to Zazie, the thirteen-year-old daughter of the café owners on the corner. A worried look shone in Zazie’s eyes. “René’s gone to the tax office, Aimée. Said you should start praying.”
Aimée groaned. René had spent all last night calculating their revenue. If they didn’t figure something out quickly, they’d have to pay a penalty—with what money, she didn’t know. The curse of the last week in June! The worker in overalls set his hammer down by their printer.
“Tell Monsieur Friant I’ve taken the measurements,” he said as he left. “Delivery tomorrow.”
She could do with an iced espresso right now. And taking a load off her feet. The hottest June in years! She caught her breath.
“Are you all right, Aimée?” asked Zazie, her eyes big.
“Fine.” She let herself down into René’s ergonomic chair and kicked off her heels. The cold wood floor chilled her feet.
Almost six months pregnant and still nausea in the morning.
“Wait une seconde. Why aren’t you in class?”
Zazie played with the red tassel on her backpack’s zipper, averted her gaze.
“What’s wrong, Zazie?”
When she met Aimée’s eyes, her lip quivered. “Mélanie, a girl in my school, was … attacked.”
“Attacked?” Concerned, Aimée took Zazie’s hand. “Sit down. Tell me what happened.”
Zazie took a school binder labeled Suspect W and pulled out a newspaper clipping. The headline read, TWELVE-YEAR-OLD LYCEE STUDENT SEXUALLY ASSAULTED IN HOME AFTER SCHOOL.
Aimée blinked, horrified. “What is Suspect W? Is this some grotesque class project? I don’t understand.”
“Mélanie’s not the first.” Zazie’s voice quavered. “She’s in the clinic, but she told me things, terrible things.”
“This is your friend in the article?” Aimée shuddered. “Zazie, how frightening …”
“Not just frightening. But…” Zazie hesitated. “There’s more.” She showed Aimée another clipping dated from last December. TWELVE-YEAR-OLD VICTIM OF BRUTAL SEXUAL ASSAULT DISCOVERED BY PARENTS. “It must be the same person,” Zazie said. “Shouldn’t someone do something to stop it, Aimée?”
“But you don’t know they’re related,” Aimée said, although her mind was turning. A serial rapist preying on young girls?
Her skin prickled as she remembered that long-ago afternoon, a hot, humid June just like this one, when she was eight years old. It was soon after her American mother had disappeared. On Ile Saint-Louis a man had followed her after school. He’d offered her an ice cream at Berthillon’s on the corner—she could almost taste the cassis-limon. But something in the man’s smile, the way he stroked her bare arm, had made her shiver.
“Can’t I tickle you?” She backed away, ran down rue des Deux Ponts around the corner to the quai and into her courtyard. Her mind came back to the present at the rrrrrr of Zazie’s backpack zipper, which the girl was still playing with anxiously. Two similar attacks in a short period of time, both on girls about Zazie’s age—one of them Zazie’s friend. Could Zazie be right? Could it be one man? Had the flics put it together yet, and if not, might there be other victims? Aimée’s stomach clenched.
“You have to be careful, Zazie. Never let anyone follow you home.”
Zazie chewed her lip. “I have to do something.”
“Bien sûr, support your friend, she needs you right now.”
“Don’t you get it, Aimée?” Zazie shook her head. “Mon Dieu, I want to stop him. The police aren’t doing anything. If they were, they would have caught him before he hurt Mélanie.”
Her eyes shone with anger. “If the flics aren’t paying attention, then I have to find him.”
“Playing detective, Zazie? Don’t be silly. We’ve talked about this.” She strengthened her grip on Zazie’s hand. “Attention! Do you know how dangerous someone like that can be? You can’t take on someone like that on your own.”
Zazie thrust a FotoFit, a computer-generated image culled from composite descriptions, into Aimée’s hand. “That’s what he looks like.”
Small, deep-set eyes, thin mouth, wearing a cap. He could be anyone. “How do you know?”
“Mélanie described him to the flics.”
“So the flics are working to find him, then.” Aimée shuddered.
“They can’t get him off the streets too soon.”
“The flics haven’t put it together, Aimée. They made this composite, but they’re not moving fast enough. Mélanie was attacked three days ago, and they have no leads! He’s got a pattern. He’ll attack again.” Zazie’s face was set with determination.
“No girl’s safe until someone finds him and brings him right to their door, but I know who he is. I recognized him from the FotoFit. Now I just have to prove it’s him.”
Alarmed now, Aimée decided she needed to reason with her. “Whether he’s the one or not, it’s the flics’ job to find him. Not yours, Zazie. If you think you know who this man is who attacked your friend, you tell the flics and then you stay away from him. Do you understand me.”
“All the parents went to the Commissariat for a meeting, even the teachers came,” said Zazie. “The flics talked about the mec’s constitutional rights, harassment without evidence. Mélanie’s mother was crying. Can you imagine?”
She could. The burden of proof wasn’t always fair. She’d seen it too many times. She looked into this child’s eyes and saw a budding young woman with the world’s weight on her shoulders. Innocent, but for how much longer?
Her eye caught on the papers in Zazie’s open Suspect W binder. “Wait a minute, what’s this?” She pointed to a black-and-white photo of a street scene. “This photo looks like it was shot with a telephoto lens.”
Zazie nodded. “My friend’s got a good camera. It’s surveillance, like you and René do. The suspect goes to this bar on rue Pierre Fontaine in Pigalle.”
Aimée stifled a gasp. The photo was a night shot—what had this child seen? She knew that street in Pigalle, and it was no place for Zazie after dark. In the daytime, the area below Place Pigalle was a peaceful world of families, fishmongers, boulangeries and shops; costume ateliers that supplied the vibrant theatrical scene in the thirteen theaters dotting the quartier; actresses with their children at the park. But at night it was another world entirely: drugs, prostitutes, hustlers, pimps, sex shops, massage parlors. A red-light district.
“How do you know he goes there?” Aimée said carefully.
“I followed him to the NeoCancan.”
Aimée wanted to spank Zazie, but she was too big. “Followed him, Zazie? What were you thinking?”
“He hung around outside our school.”
Goosebumps rose on Aimée’s arms. She reached out and touched Zazie’s cheek. “That’s too dangerous. No more, Zazie. Please promise me.”
“If I promise not to go myself, will you check out the bar?”
Zazie’s goal all along, she realized. But she recognized herself in Zazie—that striving to be taken seriously. Her father had always taken time with her, his patience insurmountable. But right now Aimée didn’t feel that she could live up to his example and take on Zazie’s little investigation. She had to pee every half hour, her ankles swelled, there was the nausea in the morning. She’d like to smack the next person who told her morning sickness ended with the first trimester. Then this damned tax… This was a job for the flics, who, it seemed, were already working on it—although privately Aimée shared Zazie’s doubts. She knew how good the flics were at listening to witnesses, and if this FotoFit was all they had to go on, they really didn’t have much.
Not that Zazie had any more than they did, whatever she thought.
Aimée heard the hum of a cell phone on vibrate. Zazie pulled a purple phone from her jeans pocket. Just turned thirteen and she had a cell phone?
“When did you get a phone?”
“My uncle’s letting me use his,” she said, pride creeping into her voice. She glanced at the display and put the unanswered phone back in her pocket. “I’m late, got to study, finish my class project,” she said. “Can you help, Aimée?” Help her? What could Aimée do, other than tell Zazie’s parents to ground her after school and make some calls to a flic she once knew in Vice?
“Just look over my notes, please?”
“On one condition, Zazie,” she said, taking the binder.
“Study for your exams, and leave this alone while I get up to speed on your…” Aimée searched for the right word. “Report.”
Zazie’s eyes widened in thanks. She jotted her cell-phone number on the binder. “Then we’ll compare notes tonight, d’accord? Later, Aimée.” With a wave, Zazie had gone out the door.
Deep in thought, Aimée ground the last of René’s beans and powered up their espresso machine, watched the chocolate brown drip into the demi-tasse cup. A little girl hunting the rapist of her schoolmate—compelled to help her friend since the flics were making no progress. What was the world coming to?