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When France's top chef, Marc Fraysse, summoned the world's press to make a shattering announcement, rumors abounded that he was about to lose one of his three coveted Michelin stars. Instead, on arrival at his remote restaurant on a volcanic plateau in central France, they were greeted with the news that the troubled genius had been murdered, and the message he intended to deliver was never made. Seven years on, the identity of his killer also remains an enigma. ...
When France's top chef, Marc Fraysse, summoned the world's press to make a shattering announcement, rumors abounded that he was about to lose one of his three coveted Michelin stars. Instead, on arrival at his remote restaurant on a volcanic plateau in central France, they were greeted with the news that the troubled genius had been murdered, and the message he intended to deliver was never made. Seven years on, the identity of his killer also remains an enigma.
Enzo Macleod takes on his fifth cold case and delves into the big business and high stakes of French haute cuisine. As winter sets in, and snow gathers along a volcanic horizon, he retraces long cold footsteps across a remote hilltop. But unravelling the complex web of relationships that surrounded the brilliant and mercurial chef - a spurned lover, a jealous wife, an estranged brother, an embittered food critic--also leads to strange parallels with his own life. And in opening up this celebrated cold case, he finds himself reopening old wounds from his past.
Mon dieu! Someone has killed the Great Chef of Europe.
Gendarme Dominique Chazal is called out on a wet winter night in 2003 to examine the body of Marc Fraysse, a bullet hole clearly visible in the middle of his forehead. Fraysse had called a press conference to make an important announcement, but not even his brother and business partner Guy, grieving near the body, knows the content of that announcement, though he does volunteer that Marc had been depressed lately at the prospect of losing one of his three cherished Michelin stars. Dominique declares Marc's Chez Fraysse, in a rustic region of central France, a crime scene. The investigation languishes for seven years until the idiosyncratic Enzo Macleod steps in to solve his fifth cold case (Freeze Frame, 2010, etc.) and Dominique admits that he is her last hope. Enzo travels to the rugged volcanic plain where Chez Fraysse stands to interview potential suspects. He begins with Marc's imperious widow Elisabeth, who may be too cozy with her brother-in-law, a johnny-come-lately to Marc's business; ambitious, stoic chef Georges Crozes, who worked directly under his friend Marc and succeeded him as Head Chef at Chez Fraysse; and his wife Anne, whom everyone believes was having an affair with Marc. Enzo's solution depends on unraveling a coded message, reading parts of Marc's diary and bantering with his effervescent daughter Sophie.
May'sflair for narrative, characterization and evocative descriptions of various locales and historic tidbits makes his formulaic whodunit fresh and delightfully readable—catnip for armchairsleuths.
He had bearded and washed the scallops, wonderful fat, succulent noix St. Jacques that the fishmonger in the covered market across the street had reserved for him. They purveyed the delicious aroma of the sea without a hint of fish. He had sliced them in half, along the round, with a razor sharp knife to make medallions, then left them to drain on kitchen paper, their milky sweet juices absorbed by the softness.
Now he plated up the salad. A few fresh green leaves. Lettuce, baby spinach, rocket, and a drizzle of thick, sweet dressing made with a syrupy balsamic, carefully gathered in a corner of the plate. He turned back to the stove. His Calphalon nonstick sauté pan was smoking hot. Tiny pools of bubbling melted butter and shimmering olive oil ran across its surface as he tipped it one way, then the other, before dropping in the St. Jacques. The sizzling sound of searing scallops filled the room along with their sweet smell. Sixty seconds, and then he flipped them over, pleased with the caramelised crust on the cooked side. Another sixty seconds, and he slipped a thin metal skewer through the side of the fattest of them, deep into its center, before extracting it quickly and raising it to his lips. The merest touch told him that the scallops were warmed to the middle, and therefore cooked. But only just.
Quickly he arranged five medallions in an elegant heap next to the salad on each plate and swivelled toward the table, one in each hand, to deliver them to the two facing place settings. He had already poured tall glasses of chilled, crisp Gaillac blanc sec from Domaine Sarrabelle. Hélène looked wide-eyed at the plate in front of her and breathed in deeply. "My God, Enzo, they smell fabulous. You'd have any woman eating out of your hand if you served up food like this every evening."
Enzo grinned. "Maybe that's the idea."
Hélène raised a sceptical eyebrow. "Hmmm. If only."
"But in any case, I'd rather you ate them off the plate than out of my hand, commissaire. And quickly. They won't keep their heat for long in these temperatures." No matter how high he had turned up the central heating, the pervasive cold of this early onset winter weather seemed to fill the apartment. Only the heat of the oven and the gas rings seemed to hold it at bay. As he sat down to slice through a scallop and spear a forkful of salad, he glanced from the French windows across the square toward the floodlit twin domes of Cahor's gothic Saint-Etienne cathedral. The rain slashed diagonally across his line of sight, and he almost imagined he saw an edge of sleet in it. Which would be unprecedented for late October in this ancient Roman city.
He turned his head to find Hélène beaming at him, as his St. Jacques melted in her mouth. She washed it over with a sip of blanc sec, then dabbed fine, full lips with her napkin.
She was still a handsome woman for all her forty-odd years. Hair normally piled up beneath the hat of her uniform, tumbled in luxuriant elegance across square shoulders. Only the sixth woman in the history of the République to be appointed Director of Public Security to one of the country's one hundred départements, she had never quite seen the joke in Enzo's refusal to call her by her name. He referred to her always as commissaire, as if it were somehow amusing. She had reflected, more than once, that it might also be a subtle way of his telling her that their on-off relationship was doomed never to progress to intimacy. She popped another St. Jacques in her mouth. "I'm afraid there are still no developments in our attempt to identify who's been trying to kill you."
Enzo studied her thoughtfully, distracted by the delicate caramel flavour of the scallops mixing with the sweet, vinegary flavour of the balsamic, and the crisp, slightly bitter tang of the greens. He prepared his palate for the next mouthful with a generous sip of wine and shrugged dismissively. "Well, it's over a year since the last attempt. So maybe whoever it was is already dead, or behind bars." But he knew that was unlikely. With four of Roger Raffin's celebrated cold cases already solved, and only three remaining, someone out there would be increasingly anxious to stop him.
Hélène, too, looked less than convinced. But she decided on a change of subject and slipped the last morsel into her mouth before taking a piece of bread to mop up the juices that lingered tantalisingly on her plate. "Where's Sophie these days?" She glanced around the apartment almost as if expecting to see her suddenly appear.
"Ah," Enzo said. "I'm glad to say I finally persuaded my daughter to resume her education. I was very disappointed when she dropped out of university to go and work at Betrand's gymn."
"Oh?" Hélène feigned interest. "What's she studying?" And she was surprised to detect a hint of evasion in Enzo's response.
He leaned across the table to take her empty plate and carried the two of them back to the breakfast bar. "Oh, she's away on a stage. Just a few weeks' work placement." He paused. "I'll be with you in a moment."
And he turned his attention to the main course. A filet mignon de porc which he had marinated in a hoisin, five-spice, and honey sauce, and then roasted in a hot oven. He removed it now from the tinfoil he had wrapped it in before cooking the St. Jacques, and cut it into moist, tender discs which he arranged on a warmed plate. Over the meat he drizzled a reduction of the marinade, then served the cubed, honeyed roast potatoes which had been crisping in the oven on a bed of rosemary.
"Voila!" He delivered his plates to the table like a magician presenting the denouement of a complex trick. He grabbed a bottle of red and expertly removed the cork. "Some oak-aged syrah to go with it. Enough strength and fruit in it, I think, to stand up to the sweetness of the pork." He poured them each a glass.
"Mon dieu, Enzo!" Hélène surveyed the plate in front of her, breathing in its aromas. "Are you trying to seduce me?"
He grinned. "It's not exactly three-star Michelin quality, commissaire. But anything that can persuade you to slip out of your uniform for the night has to be not bad."
She smiled demurely, knowing that his flirtation was empty of intent, but enjoying it all the same. Her knife cut through the meat as if it were butter. A little sauce, a cube of honeyed roast potato. She closed her eyes to savour the taste. "You missed your vocation in life."
Enzo laughed heartily. "It's just a hobby, commissaire. I'm not at all sure I would have wanted to spend my life slaving seven days a week in a hot kitchen like Marc Fraysse."
She regarded his smiling face, his dark hair drawn back in its habitual ponytail, greying now, but not enough to hide the silver streak in it. His eyes sparkled with life and amusement, one brown, one blue, and she thought how handsome he was for a man in his fifties. "Is Fraysse the next on your list?"
His smile clouded a little, and he nodded. "Actually I'm leaving for Puy de Dôme in the morning." He paused. "An early start."
Which she took as a hint that he did not anticipate her staying the night. She raised the wine glass to her lips to mask her disappointment.
Enzo turned off the A72 which was headed east in the direction of Saint Etienne, and swung south toward Thiers, one of the five principal administrative towns of the département of Puy de Dôme. Dating back to the fifteenth century, this ancient cité was the cutlery capital of France, and home of the Thiers knife. Windshield wipers smeared his vision as the town emerged slowly from the mist and rain, rising up a steeply-pitched volcanic slope toward a ragged summit. Clusters of soiled white and pink houses were built into the gradient, four stories high at one side, two at the other. From the foot of the hill, the road snaked its way up between them, walls and windows and balconies rising up on either side of it like cracks and ledges in the walls of a canyon.
Narrow streets turned off left and right, up and down, leading away into the shadowed heart of the mediaeval city, where centuries-old cantilevered houses overhung cobbled squares.
As he neared the top of the hill, the town opened out into a balustraded place with a spectacular view over a jumble of red-tiled roofs toward the valley below. Homes clung precariously to rocky outcrops among the trees on the far side of a ravine that cut deep into the hillside. Enzo found parking for his beloved, mud-spattered Citröen 2CV below the square and walked up past an ugly, modern building that housed the Hôtel de Ville. A line of blue gendarmerie vehicles stood nose to tail along one side of the street.
The gendarmerie itself, next to the Café Central, lay on the other side of the square, a handsome building of yellow brick and white stone, inlaid with patterns of red. Enzo climbed a short flight of steps and walked through a tall, arched doorway into the reception area. A middle-aged gendarme behind the desk wore a dark-blue pullover with a single white stripe across chest and upper arms. He looked up. Whatever he might have expected to see, it certainly wasn't this tall, pony-tailed Scot in baggy cargo pants, hiking boots, and khaki anorak, a large canvas satchel slung over one shoulder. Curiosity raised a single eyebrow as Enzo gave him his best smile.
"I'm looking for Gendarme Dominique Chazal."
Curiosity gave way to mild suspicion. "Are you?"
"And who should I say is looking for her?"
The gendarme hesitated for a long moment, as if reluctant to submit to the notion that he might actually be a public servant rather than simply a wielder of power over the populace. Then he turned and disappeared briskly through a door behind him. It was less than a minute before the door opened again and a young woman in uniform emerged, wide-eyed and smiling. She reached across the counter to shake Enzo's hand.
Enzo tipped his head in acknowledgment, impressed by the warm firmness of her handshake.
"I've been expecting you for quite some time."
* * *
Enzo followed her blue van north on the D906 toward Vichy, where the collaborationist régime of Marshal Pétain had once set up government during the Nazi occupation. Several kilometres out of Thiers they turned off east toward the small village of Saint-Pierre, a clutch of houses gathered around an indulgent church built from the local rusted ochre stone. The village nestled in the fold of a valley between two impressive volcanic crags, and just beyond it, a private road turned off to the right, flanked at its entrance by two stone blocks, each bearing a grey marble plaque chiselled with the monogram, MF.
The road climbed through a pine forest that rose darkly above it on both sides. After a couple of hundred meters, Dominique pulled off into a beaten parking area where a dirt track headed up through a fire-break in the trees. She was already out of her van and standing at the foot of the track before Enzo could get out of his driver's seat. "The Auberge Fraysse is at the top of the road, about a kilometre further up the hill. Marc used to go running every day in the afternoon. He came down the road to this point, and then followed the track up through the woods to the plateau."
Enzo slammed the door of his 2CV shut and peered up into the gloom. "And came back down the same way?"
"No, the track skirts the edge of the plateau and comes back down the south facing elevation to the main road. He would follow the road back round here, then on up to the auberge."
"He inherited the hotel and restaurant from his parents, didn't he?"
"He and his brother, Guy, yes. But Guy only got involved after Marc got his third star."
Enzo tipped his head toward the opening in the trees. "You'd better take me up."
It was steep, and hard going, roots and ruts making the track beneath the pine needles uneven and treacherous. Enzo could not imagine running up it. After a few dozen meters he was breathing hard. He looked up to see Dominique striding confidently ahead of him. She was a slim girl, somewhere in her mid-thirties he guessed, and the sway of her hips, and the alternate tensing of taut buttock muscles in tight-fitting uniform pants, combined to spur him past his age-induced pain threshold. Only the gun in its black holster attached to her white leather belt gave him pause for thought. Women with guns were not to be messed with.
Although the rain had stopped, the mist still hung in wreaths and strands among the trees like smoke, while rainwater slow-dripped from a million pine needles, soaking them as they climbed. As they emerged, finally, from the woods, Dominique turned to face him, barely out of breath. Enzo, red-faced and trying to control his gasps, struggled the last few meters to catch her up.
"Want to take a rest?"
"Nooo, no, I'm fine," Enzo lied. And then, casually, "Is it much further?"
"We're about a third of the way up."
His heart sank. He smiled. "I'm right behind you." And inwardly he cursed the stubborn male ego that refused to admit that he wasn't as young as he used to be.
It took them another fifteen minutes to reach the summit, and Enzo several more minutes to recover. He stood with one foot resting on the rock on which Marc Fraysse's widow had sat seven years earlier when Dominique first arrived at the scene. As he tried to subdue his breathing, he looked around. The buron was half hidden by the cloud that lay across the plateau. Here the mist swirled in pools and eddies that followed the contours of the breeze stirring among the tall wet grasses. Enzo let his eyes wander over the half-collapsed structure. "What was this place?"
"A buron. It's where a farmer used to bring his family, June through September, when he took his sheep or cattle up to the plateau for the summer grazing. You find them all over the Auvergne."
Enzo nodded. "In Scotland, they're called shielings. But it's the same thing." He stood up. He had been over the details provided by Raffin's account of the murder many times, but he wanted to hear it from the young gendarme herself. After all, Dominique Chazal had been the first law officer on the scene. "Tell me what you saw, Dominique, when you first arrived." And he listened intently as she took him through the events of that bleak February afternoon in 2003. The media parked up in the road at the foot of the hill. Guy Fraysse, and Marc's widow, Elisabeth, waiting for her by the buron. The body lying in a pool of rainwater inside, blood turning water red.
He watched the earnest concentration in her face as she worked to recall every detail. And he couldn't help but think that although it was not a pretty face, it was attractive in its plainness, devoid as it was of make-up. And that there was a beautiful serenity in the deeply warm brown of her eyes.
He followed her into the buron. "It was pretty much like this then too. Rainwater lying in pools in the mud. Only there was a mess of footprints."
"Which you identified?"
"There were five sets in total. Marc Fraysse himself. His brother. His wife. And two others that we were never able to identify. Presumably belonging to the murderer, or murderers."
"Or to anyone who might have taken shelter earlier in the day, long before Marc got here."
Dominique shook her head. "The forensics people didn't think so. They felt that the footprints were fresh, or at least made at the same time as the others."
"Casts were taken?"
"And the body was where, exactly?"
Dominique stepped deeper into the gloom. "Right here. Lying at right angles to the wall."
"More or less. His head was turned to one side. The police scientifique found traces of blood and brain tissue on the back wall, and from the way the footprints were configured, it seemed as if he had been knocked back by the blast, banging against the wall, before tipping forward."
Excerpted from Blowback by Peter May Copyright © 2011 by Peter May. Excerpted by permission of Poisoned Pen Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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