One of Kirkus’ Best Mysteries and Thrillers of 2017! “Black’s detective is hitting her post-pregnancy stride, bringing up bébé while battling the bad guys with the best of them.”
“This is Black’s 17th Leduc novel, each set in a different neighborhood, and the formula still charms… the abiding pleasure of this series is the chance to ride with a cabdriver who wants to discuss Sartre or just tearing around Paris on Aimée’s pink Vespa, making stops at the Jardin du Luxembourg and the Île Saint-Louis, where Aimée has an apartment. Lucky girl.”
—Marilyn Stasio, The New York Times Book Review
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Private investigator Aimée Leduc is walking through Saint-Germain when she is accosted by Suzanne Lesage, a Brigade Criminelle agent on an elite counterterrorism squad. Suzanne has just returned from the former Yugoslavia, where she was hunting down dangerous war criminals for the Hague. Back in Paris, Suzanne is convinced she’s being stalked by a ghost—a Serbian warlord she thought she’d killed. She’s suffering from PTSD and her boss thinks she’s imagining things. She begs Aimée to investigate—is it possible Mirko Vladić could be alive and in Paris with a blood vendetta? Aimée is already working on a huge case, plus she’s got an eight-month-old baby to take care of. But she can’t say no to Suzanne, whom she owes a big favor. Aimée chases the few leads, and all evidence confirms Mirko Vladić is dead. It seems that Suzanne is in fact paranoid, perhaps losing her mind—until Suzanne’s team begins to turn up dead in a series of strange, tragic accidents. Are these just coincidences? Or are things not what they seem?
Paris, Jardin du Luxembourg · July 1999
Tuesday, Early Morning
The beekeeper rolled up his goatskin gloves, worried that the previous day’s thunderstorm, which had closed the Jardin du Luxembourg, had disturbed his sweet bees. He needed to prepare them for pollinating the garden’s apple trees, acacias, and chestnuts that week. Under the birdsong he could already make out the low buzz coming from the gazebo that sheltered their wooden hives. As he approached, he passed gardeners piling scattered plane-tree branches, their boots sucking in the mud.
What a mess. On top of the cleanup, he had a beekeeping class to teach here this afternoon. The buzzing mounted—had a hive been knocked over in the wind? As he adjusted his netted headgear, he felt a lump, something squishing under his boot.
Pale, mud-splattered fingers—a hand. Good God, he’d stepped on a human hand protruding from the hedge surrounding the apiary. Horrified, he stepped back, pushed the dripping branches of the bushes aside. He gasped to see a woman sprawled in a sundress. One hand clutched her swollen throat; buzzing bees, like black-gold jewels, covered most of her body.
Even before he shouted to the gardeners for help, he knew it was too late.
Paris · Tuesday Morning
Aimée Leduc’s bare legs wrapped around Benoît’s spine as his tongue traced her ear. His warm skin and musk scent enveloped her. Delicious. Early morning sunlight pooled on her herringbone wood floor.
She didn’t want him to stop. A sniffling cry came over the baby monitor. Non. The cry grew louder.
“Yours or mine?” Benoît sighed.
She’d know her daughter Chloé’s cry anywhere; these were the cries of Benoît’s niece, Gabrielle. “Yours.”
One of the phones on the floor beeped. He looked at her again.
“Mine,” said Aimée.
Benoît nuzzled her neck, disentangled himself, and found his shirt. She reached from where she lay on the duvet to the pile of clothes on the floor and found her cell phone.
A voice mail. Unknown number. She dialed in, heard the tone, and waited. “It’s Dr. Vesoul.” A clearing of the throat. “Our patient, Commissaire Morbier, went into emergency surgery. We’re calling the family. He was asking for you.”
Aimée’s heart scudded. A knifelike pain wrenched her gut. Morbier. Her godfather . . . the man responsible for her father’s murder.
The man she’d gotten shot two months earlier.
The man who had taken her to ballet lessons when she was a child. The man who’d lied to her for years.
Go hear him lie again? Never, she told herself. Kept telling herself that as she slipped into the work outfit hanging in her armoire—a black pencil skirt and white silk blouse—and as her shaking fingers struggled with the straps of her Roger Vivier sandals.
* * *
Bronze sunlight stippled the worn tiles on the kitchen floor. Miles Davis, Aimée’s bichon frise, licked the spilled milk under Gabrielle’s high chair. Holding her bébé, Chloé, on her hip, Aimée handed Benoît a freshly brewed espresso. He responded with a long kiss on her neck.
She would have liked that to go on forever. His scent lingered in her hair. “Tonight?” she asked.
“I’ve got meetings.”
Benoît, a Sorbonne professor, tall and dark haired, lived across the courtyard at his sister and brother-in-law’s. Stretching a long weekend, they’d asked him to babysit. His niece, Gabrielle, shared a caregiver, Babette, with Chloé. The babies were only a month apart in age.
“Playing hard to get?” she whispered. Stupid. Why couldn’t she set boundaries, as the ELLE relationship article counseled? Keep him wanting more, not pull Gabrielle’s uncle into her bed every night.
“Look for me around eleven,” he breathed in her ear. His hand slipped into her blouse and traced the edge of her lace bra. “I’ll bring the champagne; you provide the chaos. And wear that.”
He waved goodbye to Gabrielle, seated in her high chair, and greeted the arriving Babette, who chattered about her upcoming Greek vacation. Aimée sat eight-month-old Chloé in the high chair next to Gabrielle’s—like two peas in a pod; she never got over that. Chloé mashed a raspberry in her pudgy fingers, then smeared it on the stuffed bunny Morbier had given her at her christening.
For a moment, Morbier’s face flashed in Aimée’s head. She wanted to throw the bunny in the trash. But as she eased it from Chloé’s sticky hand, the baby emitted a little cry. “Désolée, ma puce.” Aimée tossed the favorite bunny into the hamper.
She could do this, couldn’t she? Pull off being a working maman. She’d scored with a sweet caregiver for Chloé and a hunk who lived just across the courtyard.
She flipped open her red Moleskine to her to-do list, half listening to Babette’s vacation chatter. A handwritten phone number glared up at her. Morbier’s handwriting. Her insides trembled. Her godfather’s presence was everywhere in her life. She pictured herself at his deathbed, imagined his accusations. Felt a beat of pain and drew a deep breath.
One thing at a time. Compartmentalize. Her goal these days was to put things into mental boxes, deal with the nonpriorities later. Hopefully, by the time she got to the most unpleasant item, it would have gone away.
She picked up Chloé and inhaled her sweet baby smell.
“Give maman a bisou,” said Babette, folding diapers by the window and puckering her lips.
Chloé cooperated with a raspberry-scented slobber. Her daughter’s grey-blue eyes were so like those of Melac, the girl’s biological father, and reminded Aimée of him every day. Melac had a new wife, and he and Aimée had a custody truce—life was good, wasn’t it?
For a moment, in her sunlit kitchen, with the Seine gurgling below the window, Babette’s bustling faded away. All Aimée wanted to do on this muggy July day was sit back down and play with her rosy-cheeked Chloé. Forget about the day ahead . . . and Morbier.
Her phone rang in the hallway.
“See you tonight, ma puce.” She blew a kiss.
At the coatrack she grabbed her trench coat, found her phone in her bag, and hit answer.
“Allô, Aimée? It’s Jojo Dejouy. Got a moment?”
An old commissaire who’d been a colleague of her father’s—and Morbier’s. Not now of all times.
“Oui, can I call you later? I’m off to work . . .” She held the phone against her ear as she hurried down the marble stairs, grooved with age, to the ground floor.
“Morbier’s asking for you, Aimée. I thought you should know.”
First the doctor and now Jojo. She wanted to yell, Leave me alone!
“Not a good time, Jojo. Désolée.” She shooed a stray black cat out of Chloé’s stroller, parked next to Gabrielle’s by the stairs. Brushed off the cat hairs.
There was silence on Jojo’s end of the line. Aimée stepped over the courtyard’s puddles. She held the phone between her shoulder and ear, dumping her bag in her motor scooter’s basket.
“I know how you feel about Morbier,” he said finally.
Like hell he did. She checked the spark plug. Kicked the tires. Good enough.
“There’s not much time,” said Jojo. “If you don’t hear him out, I think you’ll be saddled with more guilt than you feel already.”
Guilt? “That’s not the word I’d use, Jojo.”
“It’s for your sake that I called, not his,” said Jojo. “It’s you who’s got to live with the consequences. Like I do. Never leave things unsaid, Aimée. Come to terms with Morbier.”
“Alors . . .” Her heel skidded on a fallen pear from the courtyard tree. Crushed on the cobbles, the fruit emitted a sweet scent.
“Wait, Aimée.” Jojo’s voice rose. “Your father meant a lot to me. I didn’t show it when they kicked him off the force. That was wrong. To my last day, I’ll regret that. But I know you’re a bigger person than I am. You find the good in people. You’re generous, like your father.”
Aimée wiped her heeled sandal on a cobble. “Got to go, Jojo.”
“You’re afraid of his accusations?”
“I’ve as good as killed him.”
“The CRS shot him, not you. Morbier’s an old dog,” said Jojo, “been around long enough to know the score.”
She hung up. Grabbed the handlebars of her faded pink Vespa so hard her knuckles hurt. Couldn’t she put the past aside for once and get on with today?
Yet she’d known Morbier all her life. She wondered what her father would have done.
A mist filled the quai, the plane-tree leaves rustled, and a siren whined as she gunned over Pont de la Tournelle to the Left Bank.
Find the good in people? Generous? She didn’t feel generous. But maybe she did want to hear whatever Morbier had to tell her. Could she face Morbier? Or would she end up kicking herself later? Would she regret it even more if she didn’t hear him out?
At the traffic light beyond the quai, she turned left instead of right, heading toward la Maison de Santé du Gardien de la Paix, the pale brick police hospital that bordered the Latin Quarter. Of those who went in, half made it to the country rehab clinic; the rest came out in a box.
The gathering clouds promised more rain after yesterday’s storm. The humid heat was like a blanket lying over the streets. What she wouldn’t give for a whiff of breeze. Her damp collar stuck to her neck, her fingers trembled, and she almost turned around.
Perspiration dried in the cleft of her neck. She’d come this far. Determined, she hurried up the hospital stairs. A few minutes, that would be all. She’d hear what Morbier wanted to tell her, then go.
Cool antiseptic-laced air met her in the old-fashioned wood-paneled lobby. Near the reception desk, she caught sight of Jeanne, Morbier’s middle-aged girlfriend. Jeanne leaned against the wall, her hands covering her face. Too late?
The disinfectant odors couldn’t block the smell of two old men on Aimée’s left, each standing with the support of a walker. “Good job. Take another step. We’re almost there,” said a perspiring young nurse. Aimée recognized one of the men—Philippe, from her father’s old commissariat. A haggard face now, one side of him drooping, drool hanging from his chin.
Sobs came from another corridor. Aimée shuddered and stepped back. Her fault, all her fault.
Jeanne saw her and beckoned.
That cold, wet night came back to her—Morbier reaching for what she thought was his gun, her signaling the SWAT team, the shots, the blood, all that blood, Morbier wheeled into emergency surgery.
Guilt, sadness, and anger washed over her.
Aimée couldn’t push that scuffed door open. Couldn’t face his dying. She shook her head at Jeanne, felt a tear course down her cheek, and turned around.
“Aimée, come back,” yelled Jeanne.
A minute later, she’d jumped on her scooter and taken off.