Too small for a bomb, Aimée Leduc thought, nudging
with her high-heeled toe at the tiny red box on the cold
landing outside Leduc Detective’s office. No card. Curious, she
picked up the red gift-wrapped box, sniffed. Nothing floral. A
The timed hallway light clicked off, plunging the landing
into darkness. She shivered, closed the frosted glass door
behind her, and hit the light switch. The chandelier’s crystal
drops caught the light and reflected in the old patinated mirror
over the fireplace.
For once the high-ceilinged nineteenth-century office was
warm, too warm. The new boiler had gone into overdrive. Her
nose ran at the switch from the chill January evening to a
toasty, warm office. She set down her shopping bags—January
was the season of soldes, the big sales. She’d blown her budget.
Et alors, yogurt and carrots at her desk for the next week.
She slung her coat over the chair and noticed a chip on her
rouge-noir-lacquered pinkie. Zut. She’d have to spring for a
The office phone trilled, startling her.
“Tell me you found Meizi’s birthday present, Aimée,” came
the breathless voice of René, her business partner at Leduc
Detective. “The damned jeweler screwed up the delivery.”
“Small red box? You mean it’s not for me?” she joked. She
shook the box and heard a rattle. Maybe those jade earrings
she’d seen him looking at. “You’re serious about Meizi? I mean,
that kind of serious?”
“One day you’ll meet your soul mate, too, Aimée.”
Soul mate? He’d known Meizi what, two months? But
Aimée bit her tongue. So unlike René to rush into something.
A surge of protectiveness hit her. She ought to check this girl
out, see what she could learn from a quick computer background
search. Could be a little ticking bomb, all right.
“Save my life, eh?” René said. “Bring it to the resto, Chez
“But I’m in the middle of a security proposal, René,” she
answered, hoping he didn’t hear the little lie in her voice. She
surveyed their bank of computers, which were running security
checks, updating client systems she’d programmed before she
left. The boring bread and butter of their computer security firm.
“Take a taxi, Aimée,” he said, his voice pleading. “Please.”
Meizi must have something his previous girlfriends from the
dojo didn’t. Better to check her out in person. Aimée put the
box in one coat pocket and dug through the other for her cell
“A taxi, with this traffic? Métro’s faster, René.”
She grabbed her leopard-print coat and locked the office door.
Twenty minutes later she ran up the Métro steps, perspiring
and dodging commuters. Frustrated, she found herself at the
exit farthest from where she wanted to be, by the Romanesque
church that was now the Musée des Arts et Métiers. Harmonic
Gregorian chanting wafted in the cold air and drifted into the
enveloping night. Petals of snow lodged like nests of white
feathers in the bare-branched trees. What a night, the temperature
falling, a storm threatening in the clouded sky. The
frigid air sliced her lungs, shot up the mini under her coat.
Great. She hadn’t thought her wardrobe through, as usual.
René had better appreciate this. Listen to sense and slow
She ran across the boulevard into the medieval quartier,
still an ungentrified slice of crumbling hôtel particuliers, narrow
cobbled streets lined by Chinese wholesale luggage and jewelry
shops. Red paper lanterns hanging from storefronts shuddered
in the wind. From a half-open door she heard the pebble-like
shuffling of mah-jongg tiles. This multi-block warren comprised
the oldest and smallest of the four Chinatowns in Paris.
Few knew it existed.
She reached Chez Chun, the oldest or second-oldest building
in Paris, depending on whom you talked to, sagging and timbered
beside a darkened hair salon.
Inside Chez Chun a blast of garlic, chilis, and cloying Chinese
pop music greeted her. The resto, an L-shaped affair, held
ten or so filled tables. Roast ducks dangled behind the takeout
counter. Not exactly an intimate dining spot.
René cornered her at the door. “Took you long enough,
Aimée.” René, a dwarf, was always a natty dresser. Tonight he
wore a new silk tie and a velvet-collared wool overcoat tailored
to his four-foot height.
“Work, René,” she said. “I’m still running programs.”
He raised his hand. “Routine. We’re good till Monday.”
She’d never seen him like this. For once work took second
“Yet look who came out in the cold,” she said, wiping the
snow from her collar. “Why so nervous?”
“Use your famous Friant charm,” she said under her breath.
She pulled the gift from her coat pocket. “But why rush this,
René reached for the box, a small smile playing on his lips.
“Time to listen to my heart, Aimée.”
At the table, Meizi, her black ponytail bobbing, smiled at
them. A warm smile that reached her eyes. “René said you’d be
joining us. We ordered, I hope you don’t mind.” Petite, not
much taller than René, she wore jeans and a green sweater as
she stood ladling abalone soup into small bowls. “Love your
coat, Aimée. Meet my parents.”
“Bonsoir,” Aimée said politely.
The unsmiling Monsieur and Madame Wu stared at her.
“My parents speak Wenzhou dialect,” said Meizi with an
apologetic shrug. “I’ll translate.”
Aimée grinned, determined to thaw the atmosphere. Her
black-stockinged thigh caught on the plastic-covered seat.
Under the disapproving stare of Madame Wu, she remembered
René’s complaints about how Meizi’s parents insisted on chaperoning
René set the present on the table beside the steaming soup.
“Happy birthday, Meizi.”
Aimée tried not to cringe. Even if it was only earrings, it
was too soon. René was nuts, or crazy in love.
Madame Wu turned and spoke to her husband. Aimée heard
her sharp intonation, and could imagine what was being said.
But Meizi’s face lit up in happiness as she untied the bow
and opened the jewelry box. To Aimée’s surprise, it was a ring.
A pearl ring, luminous and simple. “How thoughtful, René,”
Meizi gasped. “I lost my other ring at the dojo.”
He winked. “I hope the next one will sparkle more.”
Madame Wu pulled the reading glasses down from her
short, very black hair—dyed, Aimée could see—and shook her
head. Round-faced Monsieur Wu, who was much older, averted
Were they criticizing René’s gift or objecting to the relationship?
Perhaps they didn’t want their daughter involved
with a dwarf? Despite her own reservations, Aimée felt a pang
“Lovely, non?” Aimée said, trying to ease the almost palpable
“Try it on, Meizi,” René urged.
Aimée noticed the look René and Meizi shared. Lost in
each other. She nudged René. He ignored her.
Madame Wu spoke sharply, and Meizi translated. “My parents
say you’re too kind, René.”
Aimée doubted that. Meizi slipped the ring on her fourth
finger. “Parfait.” Aimée noticed the bitten nails, the worn
calluses on Meizi’s fingertips. Meizi set the ring back in the
box and passed out the steaming soup bowls. A large serving
Meizi’s phone vibrated on the table. She glanced at the
number and pushed her chair back. “I’ll be right back.”
René’s hand paused on his soupspoon. “Can’t you talk later,
“Won’t take a moment,” she said. As Meizi went to the
door, Aimée noticed her backward glance, her beetled brow,
before she stepped outside.
The Wus, not ones for conversation, tucked into the soup.
Poor René. Aimée imagined the dinners he’d shared with the
humorless Madame and Monsieur Wu. Had she read Meizi, a
dutiful daughter, all wrong? A young waitress cleared their
bowls, leaving Meizi’s, and brought a platter of fragrant roasted
duck with shaved scallions. At least five more minutes passed.
“Where’s Meizi?” René asked, holding off from serving himself.
“Meizi, oui.” Madame Wu nodded, her chopsticks working
at morsels of duck.
Aimée wished Meizi hadn’t left them in this awkward situation.
She shot René a look. He flipped his phone open, hit
Meizi’s number on his speed dial.
A stooped older woman wearing a stained apron entered
the resto. Madame Wu exchanged an uneasy look with Monsieur
Wu as the old woman made her way to their table.
“Who’s this, another relative?” Aimée asked.
“The busybody who sells tofu and groceries next to her
uncle’s place.” René frowned. “Meizi’s not answering her
Suddenly, the old woman shouted in Chinese. Madame Wu
dropped her glasses on the table.
The old woman continued, bellowing, frantic. Loud murmurs
and the clattering of chopsticks filled the resto. Surprised,
Aimée saw diners throw money on their tables, heard chairs
screeching back in haste over the linoleum. As if at some mysterious
signal, people reached for their coats and fled in a mass
Madame and Monsieur Wu stood in unison. Without a
word they left the table and were out the door of the resto
without their coats. Not only rude, but unnerving.
The ring in the red velvet box sat by the teapot, forgotten.
Like Meizi’s coat on the back of her chair.
“But what’s happening?” René said, bewilderment on his face.
Aimée rubbed her sleeve on the fogged-up window to see
outside. A red glow reflected in the ice veining the cobble
cracks. Firemen, an ambulance, the police?
The young waitress by the door turned down the pop music.
“What’s the matter?” Aimée asked her.
“Trouble as in a robbery?” Jewelry stores abounded in the
quartier, which had once been the diamond-cutting district.
“The old lady said murder.”
“Murder? But who?”
The waitress shrugged. Her fingers worried a tattered menu.
“Behind the luggage shop.”
Aimée sat up. “The luggage shop around the corner?”
The waitress nodded.
Meizi’s parents’ shop. A terrible feeling hit her. Meizi?
René had pulled on his coat and was already halfway to the
door. Aimée scooped the jewelry box into her pocket, left a
wad of francs on the table, and took off behind him.
• • •
Filled with dread, Aimée hurried down the street,
following René past the dimly lit Le Tango, a dance club emitting
a reverberating drumbeat. No one stood outside. It was too
cold for the usual drunken brawls. A horn blared streets away.
A flash of red disappeared around the corner. Madame Wu.
Aimée glimpsed a few Chinese people crowding the short
walkway behind the luggage shop. The dark walkway between
the buildings was crowded with garbage bins, wood palettes,
old cart wheels, the view ending in a dim red lantern shining
on back stairs. Not a hundred yards from the resto. Her shoulders
“Meizi lives here above the shop.” René panted, his breath
frosting in the cold. The windows he pointed to were dark.
Where were the Wus?
Aimée fought a rising panic, picking her way through Chinese
people of all ages, mumbling and scraping their feet on
“Has someone been . . . ?” Aimée’s question was interrupted
by a woman’s piercing scream. People jostled her shoulder as
they ran away, their footsteps thudding on the snow. Shivering
in the cold and full of misgivings, Aimée crossed the now
Not Meizi, non . . . don’t let it be Meizi.
A rat, fat and brown, its tail the length of its long, wet,
furred body, scurried down the steps over the new-fallen snow.
It left a trail of red in its wake.
At the foot of the crumbling stone stairs by Meizi’s door, a
man’s snow-dusted trouser-clad leg sprawled from a wooden
palette. She gasped. Bits of gnawed, bloody flesh, orange peels,
and black wool threads trailed in the snow. Good God. Her
stomach lurched. The rat.
Aimée couldn’t peel her horrified gaze from the corpse,
which was half wrapped in clear plastic, the kind used to secure
merchandise to palettes. The man’s matted red hair, prominent
nose, and cheekbones all melded, smooth and tight, under the
clear plastic. Her gaze traveled to his wide, terrified eyes, then
to his mouth, frozen open in a snowflake-dusted scream.
She stumbled and caught herself on the ice-glazed wall.
Who was he? He hadn’t been here long, judging by the light
coating of snow. Where was Meizi?
“Mon Dieu,” René said, stepping back. He took a few steps
and pounded on Meizi’s back door.
Aimée gathered up her long leopard-print coat and stepped
with care around the dirtied snow, avoiding the overturned
garbage bin’s contents.
Her insides churned. She shouldn’t have looked at the eyes.
A pair of black-framed glasses lay in the snow beside his
gnawed calf. Crinkled papers, a half-open wallet. Using a dirty
plastic bag to cover her hands, she picked the wallet up. No
cash or credit cards. Cleaned out.
“Come on, Aimée,” René said. “The flics will handle this.
We have to find Meizi.”
Wedged deep in the wallet’s fold she found a creased Conservatoire
des Arts et Métiers library card with an address and
the name Pascal Samour. The photo showed a younger version
of the pale face in plastic before her.
She turned the card over.
“Put that down, Aimée,” René said.
Stuck to the other side of the library card by gummy adhesive
was a smudged photo of a Chinese girl with a glossy ponytail.
Meizi. “But look, René.”
He gasped, and his face fell. He stepped back, shaking his
head. “I don’t understand.”
She caught her breath. “He knew Meizi, René. What if
she . . .”
“You think she’s involved?” he sputtered. “Impossible.”
He punched numbers on his cell phone. “She’s still not
answering. She’s in trouble.”
At that moment, wide flashlight beams blinded Aimée. She
stumbled, dropped the wallet. Static and voices barked from a
walkie-talkie: “First responders, truck thirteen. Alert medical
backup we’re in the walkway.”
“Someone reported this incident,” the pompier medic
shouted, his blue anorak crunching with snow. “Was that you?”
Aimée shook her head.
His colleague brushed past her with his resuscitator equipment.
He pulled on latex gloves, took out clippers and snipped
the plastic away, revealing that the man’s wrists were bound
behind him. The medic felt the man’s carotid artery. A formality.
He shook his head.
A shout erupted. A bedraggled figure came down a side staircase
shaking his fist. He wore a matted fur coat, a sleep mask on
his forehead, and orange slippers. “I’m trying to sleep.”
Aimée hadn’t noticed the crumbling stairs, the brickedup
windows. Or the Permis de Demolir sign on the building.
“How many times have we told you to stay in the shelter,
Clodo?” said the second medic.
“They took my wine,” the homeless man said in a rasping
She wondered why the rats hadn’t chewed him, too.“Did
you hear anything? Or see this man attacked, Clodo?”
“Every night I hear the angels sing. Then the devils come.
Like you.” A loud burp.
“Clochards.” The medic shrugged. “Guess this is one for the
flics.” His partner packed away the resuscitator.
“You’re going to leave him like that?” René shivered beside
her in the footprinted snow. Aimée scanned the ground, but
the wallet with Meizi’s picture had disappeared.