“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
Aimée Leduc is all dressed up in her new Chinese silk jacket, supposedly an “exclusive,” for dinner with a difficult client at an elegant restaurant in the Bastille district. She is chagrined to see that the woman seated at the very next table is wearing an identical jacket. When the woman leaves her cell phone on the table, Aimée follows her to return it and is attacked in the shadowy Passage Boule Blanche. When she regains consciousness, Aimée finds that she is blind. Nevertheless, she is told she is lucky; the woman she was following was found in the next passage, murdered. Aimée is determined to identify her attacker. Was he actually a serial killer targeting showy blondes as the police insist? Was he really after the other woman? Or was Aimée his intended victim?
Aimée Leduc felt the air shift, the floating candles waver, as a woman murmuring into a cell phone, wearing a black silk Chinese jacket identical to Aimee’s, sat down on the restaurant banquette next to her.
Great. Just Aimée’s luck someone showed up in her jacket tonight. For a moment Aimée made eye contact with the woman. Blunt blonde shocks of hair framed her face. She favored Aimée with an intense stare. The vein in her temple stood out in her otherwise perfectly made-up face.
“Wouldn’t you know it!” Aimée said to her.
“Things could get worse.” The woman shrugged, as if wearing the same outfit as her neighbor were the least of her worries. Aimée noticed the frightened look in her eyes before she averted her face.
Around them, illuminated by red glass Etruscan-style sconces, Parisiens drank, dined, and smoked. This upscale resto, formerly a meat market, with its exposed beams and rusted meat hooks, was booked weeks ahead. But her client, Vincent Csarda, head of Populax, an agence de publicité, never had trouble getting a table.
Tinkling glasses and the waiters’ shouts made it difficult for Aimée to hear Vincent’s words. Vincent, the brains behind his advertising agency, who was sitting across from her, stabbed his slithering ziti con vongole as he spoke.
“But I’m just the mec stuck in the middle. My agency subcontracted this Incandescent campaign only two weeks ago,” he said. His short coifed hair and red bow tie were out of place in this fashionably dressed late evening dinner crowd. He was not quite Aimée’s height. Vincent, who was in his mid-thirties, was a nervous type. She figured he was gaunt from overwork and espresso. She wished it worked that way for her.
Aimée knew she should be home preparing her apartment for the construction crew and packing her bags. She was torn between bolting for a taxi and listening to more of Vincent’s excuses as he sat across from her.
“Tiens,” Vincent said, “was it my fault Incandescent was a front and laundered money for gun runners?”
“Vincent, the courts see it differently,” Aimée said, wishing he would accept the facts. But Vincent demanded control. Total control. Didn’t they all? “E-mail and downloaded documents constitute judicial evidence. We have to turn over your Opera marketing campaign file for the domestic and Russian tour.”
“But my Opera marketing campaign doesn’t relate to them. I refuse to let this investigation tarnish my firm’s reputation.”
She mustered a small smile. After all, he was a paying client. “My connection at the Judiciare says a subpoena’s imminent,” she said. “Count on it. It would be better to give them your hard drive voluntarily.”
It wasn’t the first time she’d regretted her best friend Martine’s referral. Martine and Vincent were partners in Diva, a new magazine. Of course, Martine, former Madame Figaro editor, savvy and connected, did the work and Vincent was the financial backer. Martine had been crazed, getting ready for the launch this week.
The woman next to them ground out her cigarette. She drummed her long purple fingernails on the table, then lit another and set it in the ashtray.
Aimée recognized the nail color—Violet Vamp, advertised as urban armor for girls on the go—as one she’d been meaning to buy herself. She tried to ignore the curling smoke. She’d quit smoking four days ago.
Aimée’s chipped nails, Gigabyte Green, needed a manicure. At least her sun-streaked hair and tan, from a week in Sardinia, helped her fit in with the sophisticated crowd.
Had everyone found the same boutique on rue Charonne? And coughed up the equivalent of the boutique’s rent for the supposed “one-of-a-kind” clinging side-buttoned dress with matching jacket? Aimée had only been able to afford the jacket with mahjong buttons, unlike her neighbor who wore the knockout matching sheath as well.
Scents of fresh basil and roasted garlic drifted from the next table. When Aimée looked over again, the woman had propped her menu against an ashtray and disappeared.
Laughter erupted from the bar. Nearby, chairs scraped over the floor tiles. Time to work out this agreement, smooth Vincent’s feathers, and get him to cooperate, Aimée concluded. Then she could leave.
“Dragging in my firm will give rise to rumors,” said Vincent. “Damaging rumors.”
Mentally, she agreed. Why be an appetizer served up before the main course in a foreign arms investigation? But once la Procuratrice got something on her court docket, it stayed there.
“Vincent, be calm. We hand over the hard drive…”
“I’m paid to deal with my client’s information,” he interrupted. “Not you. Not the Judiciare. They have no right to see my records or client database.”
She wanted to deflect his anger, focus on the ongoing computer security issues. “Here’s good news. We set up new firewalls so Hacktivistes pose no threat to Populax,” she said, pouring sparkling Badoit mineral water into his glass. He worried about hackers constantly.
“That’s what we pay you for at Leduc Detective.” He stood up. Short as he was, even in his rumpled seersucker blazer, he commanded attention. “My lawyer will stop this. Why can’t you encrypt the Incandescent file? It would save everyone needless trouble?”
“Too late. Look, René and I installed your system,” Aimée said, “but we’re following the law. Encryption is illegal. I know la Proc, she’s reasonable.”
He glared. “We paid you for security.” Vincent took the agency’s contract with Leduc Detective out of his attaché case, tore it up, and sprinkled the pieces, like parmesan cheese, over her pasta.
He edged past the waiter holding the second course, artichauts aux citron. She got to her feet to stop him. But he’d darted out the door, disappearing into the warren of passages threading the Bastille quartier.
Aimée’s appetite vanished. Why had things gone so wrong? A multimillion-franc corporation looked better volunteering its hard drive data to the Judiciare, not concealing it. No one would welcome being drawn into a money-laundering case, but did Vincent, a self-made chef d’operations, have something to hide?
Beside her, the woman’s cigarette with the Violet Vamp lip imprint—matching her nail polish—smoldered in the ashtray. Instead of lighting a cigarette of her own from it, Aimée popped a piece of Nicorette gum.
She dreaded calling René, her partner, and telling him of Vincent’s outburst. René was better with difficult clients. As he often pointed out, her level of tact left something to be desired. But the bottom line was, if they didn’t furnish the subpoenaed e-mail and data, they’d be disobeying the law. Even if Vincent had torn up their contract.
And then she noticed the cell phone on the banquette table. The one the woman had been using. She must have forgotten it.
Losing a phone was a pain; she’d misplaced hers and had to replace it, only last month. On her way out, she’d leave the phone with the maitre d’.
The waiter slipped her the check. A perfect ending to a perfect meal! She’d deduct it from Populax’s retainer when she sent their bill.
Then the maitre d’ returned to the table and handed back her card with a shrug. “No credit cards, désolé.” So she had to dredge up her last bit of cash. No taxi tonight. She was left with just enough change for the Métro.
While she was working out how to break the news of the failed meeting to René, waiting by the register for a few francs change, the cell phone rang.
She answered it automatically, cupping the phone between her chin and shoulder as she took her change, balancing her heavy bag.
“For the love of God… forget your pride,” said a male voice, barely audible over the hum of conversation and strains of accordion music in the background. “Meet me in Passage de la Boule Blanche, give me one more chance, listen to reason…”
A familiar tune wafted over the line in the background. Like a song her grandmother had played on her accordion. But Aimée couldn’t quite place it.
“Don’t argue, I won’t listen to a refusal.”
The phone clicked off.
Aimée stared at it. The cover bore the initials J.D. She looked out the window and saw the woman disappearing into the square outside.
“This belongs to that woman, the one wearing the same jacket as mine. Do you know her name?”
The maitre d’ shrugged again. “I’m sorry, Mademoiselle,” he said. “This is a busy night.”
“My receipt?” But the flustered maitre d’ had turned to seat a bevy of waiting customers.
Aimée grabbed her receipt, which was by the register. She hit the phone’s callback button. A flat buzz. Odd. What should she do?
The corner resto faced the dark Square Trousseau. Turn-of-the-century baroque apartment buildings with filigree ironwork balconies bordered the quiet square. Leafy plane trees canopied the black iron fence that surrounded it. The woman had vanished.
She was familiar with the nearby Passage de la Boule Blanche; she often used it as a shortcut. The Cahiers du Cinéma, a film journal whose office was located mid-passage off a leafy courtyard, had been a client last year. She’d also joined their film club. Since the passage was en route to the Métro, she decided to return the phone to the man who had called… Let them work it out.
She dreaded the packing that still awaited her in her apartment on Île St-Louis. And she still had to dig out the laptop cable adaptors. They were somewhere in the only closet, which was 20 feet high and full of rolled-up, threadbare Savonnerie carpets.
Martine’s brother, in Shanghai on assignment, had sublet his apartment to her, until the remodeling—long overdue—of her own apartment’s bathroom and kitchen was finished.
At the passage entrance, streetlights from rue du Faubourg Saint Antoine illuminated peeling notices and a Meubles décoratifs sign affixed to the stone wall. A waist-high metal barricade, a Piétons barrés notice, and construction materials blocked the way. Inhabitants must have ignored the sign, since it was pushed to the side and a path had been beaten through the rubble.
Further along, the flat roof of the covered passage opened to the sky. The threadlike passage lined with narrow, looming buildings seemed to end in distant mottled shadows.
The echo of her voice and faint meow of a cat reached her ears. Water dripped from somewhere. In the late evening, unseasonably warm for October, dampness from lichen-encrusted water pipes chilled her.
Why didn’t the man who’d telephoned answer? He’d said he was waiting.
She stepped past the barricade, scanning the dark passage, waiting in the shadowed stillness for a reply. Had he given up?
Cellophane wrappers crackled under her black Prada mules, a Porte de Vanves flea market find. Worn once. Or so the vendor said before she’d bargained him down to 300 francs.
The scent of night-flowering jasmine floated from a hidden garden behind the damp wall. Was the man playing games? She didn’t have time for this.
One of the phones in her handbag rang.
She picked it up.
“Look, Monsieur, a woman forgot her phone and I picked it up. I’d like to return it, I’m in the passage.”
“What are you talking about?” her partner asked. “I thought you were dining with Vincent?”
“I’m in the Passage de la Boule Blanche. A woman left her cell phone in the resto and I was trying to return it to her.”
“What happened with Vincent?”
Now she’d have to admit the awful truth. She’d wanted to tell René in person.
“We were in the resto until Vincent tore up our contract,” she said. “Then he stomped out, leaving me with the bill.”
“Tiens! Aimée, you should have let me handle him,” he said. She heard the sigh in René’s voice.
“I won’t lie or cheat for clients.”
“There’s always a first time!” René snorted.
“At least not for conglomerates like Populax.”
“Quel méli-melo! What a mess!” René said. “The Judiciare’s getting nasty about this. I’ve been warned there may be a charge of obstructing justice in our future.”
The phone clicked.
“Hold on, I’m at the office,” René said. “I have another call.”
Aimée picked her way over the uneven path toward a widening of the passage. No windows here. Just wet cobblestones underfoot with shimmers of fluorescent graffiti catching licks of light. Further on, she knew it intersected with the dimly lit rue de Charenton.
She’d already left her dog, Miles Davis, with René’s neighbor, a female impersonator who performed in a club in Les Halles. Bon, she’d catch the Métro home and throw stuff in her suitcase and ask René to pick her up and drive her to the flat where she would stay during her apartment’s renovation. They could discuss strategies en route.
She smelled something tangy and tart. Cloth rustled. Aimée hitched up her leather backpack and grabbed her sharp keys in her fist as a defense. Before she could turn, viselike hands clamped around her neck, squeezing and choking her. She screamed but no sound came out.
Slammed into the wall, her face scraped the moss-speckled stone. Pain exploded in her skull. Then she was pulled back and slammed again. She grabbed at her throat, struggling to pull off those hands.
Air. She had to get air.
Panic flooded her. She couldn’t breathe. Twisting, turning, trying to bite and scratch those hands.
In the distance she heard a dropped bottle shatter, then a disgusted “Merde,” then laughter. Were other people coming down the passage? She saw a light, heard an intake of breath behind her. The hands let go.
Something wet seeped over her dress. She heard a ringing sound echoing off the dark walls. The last things she saw before she lost consciousness were stars peeking between the jagged roof tiles in the Paris sky.