Murder in Montmartre
By Cara Black
SOHO Copyright © 2006 Cara Black
All right reserved. ISBN: 1-56947-410-9
Chapter One Paris 1995 January, a Monday Night
Aimee Leduc's heels sank into the snow-crusted surface of the Paris street, quiet and deserted except for the whisper of ghosts. There were always ghosts, she thought, and they were even more poignant at this time of year: souls, wandering at night over the cobblestones, flitting through the dark paved courtyards, leaving exhalations of the past behind them.
The metallic edge to the winter air promised a storm. Below her, ice-veiled barges surrounded by escaping steam swayed on the surface of the slow-moving Seine. Quayside lights pricked the black water like so many stars. The hushed night noises, absorbed by the new-fallen snow, seemed planets away.
She hurried along the Ile St. Louis quai to her building, a relic of the seventeenth century, and mounted the steps, worn into grooves with the passage of time. Inside her cold apartment she met stale air and darkness. Disappointed, she hung her bag on the hook by the door. It was the third time this week Guy had been out at night, on call.
She heard a click, just audible. Alarmed, she switched on the light and called out, "Guy, is that you?"
He stood in the doorway facing her, his white evening shirtcollar unbuttoned, hands in his tuxedo jacket pockets, the expression in hisgray eyes unreadable.
She gasped. Caught up in work, she'd forgotten the reception he was hosting as department head for Doctors Without Borders!
"Guy, forgive me but-"
"I was late for the reception," he interrupted. "When I reached the hospital there was an emergency waiting for me. I was four minutes away from my patient's losing his sight tonight. If I'd been there on time ... but I waited for you."
A hot flush spread over her cheeks. "Work! I'm sorry, you should have gone ahead without me, I didn't think-"
"You know, at medical school they taught us to identify, isolate, and incise a malignancy," he said.
Her muscles tightened. A cold chill emanated from him.
"And to remove it before it spreads, engulfing the organs, choking the lymph systems."
"Guy, look, it goes both ways."
He headed to the bedroom, pausing in the doorway to say, "Which crisis this time, Aimee? The computer crashed, you were chasing an account that hasn't paid, you were lost on a hacking trail, or Rene left early and you had to cope?"
"Not bad. Three out of four, Guy." She wanted to feel the warmth of his surgeon's hands on her skin, his wonderful hands; his tapered fingers that had stroked her spine under the silk duvet last night.
A lost look crossed his face. Then it was gone. "It's not working, Aimee."
He opened the armoire and threw shirts into a duffel bag. He was serious.
"You'd flunk out of the navy," she said, blocking his path.
He stared at her. "What ?"
"You jump ship at the first sign of rough water."
"We've had this argument before." He shook his head, looking down. "I wanted us to work."
"But it's not just me," she interrupted. "You're always on call, you go away for three weeks at a time to medical conferences!" She left out the holidays and Saint Sylvestre, New Year's Eve.
"I know." He looked away.
Stupid. Why had she said it? Never rely on a man. Or let them know that you do.
"Guy, I'll tattoo your schedule on my brain." She reached out and pulled him to her, enveloping herself in his arms. "Nothing ever felt like this before."
He traced his warm finger along her cheekbone. She closed her eyes, inhaling his lime vetiver scent. She felt something land in her pocket with a metallic sound.
"Here are your keys," Guy said.
"Let's work this out," she said, fighting her fear. Why had she ignored the warning signs?
"It's better this way, Aimee. For you and for me. I'm sorry." He grabbed the duffel bag, strode through the hall.
"But Guy ..."
He was out the door before she could stop him.
Crushed, she ran to the window and pressed her nose against the cold glass as she watched him get into a taxi on the quay below. She heard the door slam and the taxi's tires churn away over the slush. Her eyes welled with tears. Two months of living together, trying to ... he was the man who'd saved her eyesight, who had written poetry about her.... Now he was gone, just like that!
Relationships ... she didn't get them. Shouldn't people take each other as they found them? She'd blown it. Again.
She sank onto the duvet, stunned, and grabbed the pillow. She found herself clutching one of his socks. She remembered lying in bed at sunrise as the blood orange sun peeked above their toes outside the window, how his long fingers brushed her thigh, the bowl of steaming cafe au lait he'd prepared resting next to the thick Le Monde diplomatique on the balcony awaiting Sunday morning reading. She remembered how his nose wrinkled when he laughed. She buried her face in the pillow. Punched it. Trying to shut out the hollow ache inside her.
A small wet tongue licked her ear. Miles Davis, her bichon frise, panted eagerly, carrying his leash. She heard his low whine.
"Just you and me now, Miles," she said.
A jade bangle, green and luminous, hung by the beveled mirror, on the birch branch where she kept her jewelry. It caught the gleam from the barge lights. It had been given to her by an old Vietnamese woman for good luck. She felt its cold smoothness as she slipped it onto her wrist, then pulled on a black down jacket, looped two wool scarves around her neck, and descended the drafty stairs, her heart leaden, to walk her dog.
A January night, and she felt as if she and Miles Davis were the only ones in Paris. Except for the ghosts.
She had lost her man.
A barge floated by with red Christmas lights still strung along the sides, framing the flat deck. A scratchy strain of a song accompanied by an accordion, reached her and she heard the lapping of wavelets.
Miles Davis wandered along, sniffing around the metal grille that surrounded the base of a leafless tree. She rubbed the jade but no reassuring warmth answered.
Her cell phone vibrated in her coat pocket. Guy?
"Allo," she said, hope in her voice.
"Bibiche!" She recognized Laure Rousseau's voice. Laure was the daughter of her father's first partner, and the endearment was the one she'd used since they were eight years old. "Come celebrate, Ouvrier's retiring. Remember him?"
Ouvrier was a horse-faced flic from her father's old Commissariat. She heard conversation and the pinging of a pinball machine in the background. A bar? Not her scene, with a bunch of old flics reminiscing and drinking, the type who'd joined the force before the earth's crust had cooled.
"I've got good news, bibiche. Don't I owe you a drink?"
"Sounds like you've already started."
"The seat next to me is warm," Laure said.
Aimee thought of her empty apartment filled with cold, stale air.
"Place Pigalle, you remember L'Oiseau?" Singing erupted in the background.
She'd prefer falling off a stool with Laure to drinking by herself at the corner bistro.
Aimee looked down. The snow crystals crunched below her feet. Miles Davis had finished; she could take him upstairs.
"I'll grab a taxi. See you in fifteen minutes."
This slice of Montmartre had witnessed several heydays. Before the turn of the century, Edgar Degas had discovered his models here among the grisettes, young women waiting for work amid the horse-drawn milk carts. Now the sex clubs and cut-rate North African shops contributed a different flavor. Still, pockets of cobbled lanes with two-story artists' ateliers dotted the route winding up to Sacre Coeur, which crowned the steep hill.
Aimee entered L'Oiseau through a haze of cigarette smoke and close, steamy air; the party was in full swing. Thank God she'd stuck on a second Nicorette patch in the taxi. Plainclothes flics, in their sixties and older, propped up the zinc bar and sat at the small round tables. She recognized several faces, men who'd worked with her father. They were more at home at a zinc bar than in their own kitchens. In this group, where she had once belonged, she now felt like an outsider.
Her godfather, Morbier, a commissaire, sat at the counter, his tweed elbow-patched jacket smelling of wet wool. She brightened, seeing a gold paper crown tilted on his salt-and-pepper hair, incongruous with his basset-hound drooping eyes and sagging cheeks. A half-eaten slice of Galette du Roi, Epiphany cake, and a small ceramic Santon charm sat in front of him.
Where was Guy? Forget it. She needed a drink.
"Now you're the king, eh, Morbier? Where's Laure?" she asked, motioning to the owner and helping herself to an almond-paste-filled tart. She took a sip from Morbier's glass, then another. "The same please, Jean."
She felt a tap on her shoulder and turned.
Laure Rousseau, grinning, stood framed against a yellowed Marseilles soccer-team poster that was peeling from the tobacco-stained walls. As always, her hand flicked across her mouth, a small self-conscious movement she made to hide the thin white line crossing her upper lip, the remnant of a cleft palate long since corrected by surgery.
"So, bibiche," Laure said, her brown eyes scanning Aimee, "you want to talk about the truck that ran you down?"
That obvious? Aimee choked and spilled her glass. Burgundy splattered on the zinc counter. Laure reached for a rag and wiped up the mess.
"That bad?" Laure asked again.
She nodded. "Guy's on call. Permanently on call."
"Aaah, the eye doctor. You've broken up?" Laure asked. "I'm sorry."
Aimee tapped her foot on the cracked brown tiled floor littered with sugar-cube wrappers and cigarette butts. "I blew it. But rather than go into it, maybe I should leave. I don't want to spoil the evening."
Laure put her arm around Aimee's shoulder. "Let's get rid of that long face. Tell me."
And Aimee did.
"He'll be back," Laure said.
"I'm not holding my breath. We're too different." Aimee picked up a new glass and threw back a shot. Men came and went, didn't they? There was always another one. With more wine, she'd convince herself of that and maybe get through the night.
"Bibiche." Laure hugged her. "You can have anyone in here, anytime. The trouble is they're all divorced, can't keep a relationship going for a minute, and are as old as your Papa and mine."
"As old as my father would have been," Aimee said. "It's been five years, Laure." The Place Vendome explosion that had killed her father was now just a lost file in the Ministry, the one lead she'd had from Interpol ... cold by now. She tried to shove these thoughts aside, too.
How familiar this smoky cafe-bar was. The kind where she and Laure had sat playing endless tic-tac-toe games, while their fathers worked weekend stakeouts.
She noticed the furrow in Laure's brow and that her friend kept tossing back her long straight brown hair nervously. The navy blue pantsuit hung on her.
"You've lost weight," Aimee said.
Laure averted her close-set brown eyes.
"I can't keep these dinosaurs in line," Laure said, a beat later. "At least the old-school types don't toss out sexual innuendos every five minutes and tease me like the new recruits at the Commissariat do. My life's on the line every day, just like theirs. When I leave in the morning, I don't know if I'11 come back. Still, they think I'm fair game."
"You're on patrol, just want you wanted," Aimee said, noticing the pin on Laure's lapel. "I'd offer congratulations, but you know how I feel about your patrolling."
Laure had left paperwork behind and was now assigned to active duty. Patrolling wasn't a job Aimee thought wise for her. They'd had endless discussions over it. Laure's need to prove herself-whether it arose from her complex over the harelip that had marred her appearance until the operation, or from her desire to match her father's decorated service-hadn't changed.
"Why must you put your life on the line?"
Again, that averted gaze, the hand motion brushing over her mouth.
Raucous laughter erupted from a knot of back-slapping gray-haired men, drowning Laure's reply. The well-lubricated crowd, conversing at a roar, competed with the pinging of the 1950's pinball machine.
"Encore?" Jean, the owner, asked, pointing to her glass.
Laure shook her head.
"Something bothering you, Laure?"
Laure jerked a thumb toward a man in his thirties with black slicked-back hair and a clipped mustache, who was crouched over the zinc counter. "My partner, Jacques Gagnard."
Aimee noticed Jacques's mouth twitch as he spoke into a cell phone while lighting a Gitanes cigarette. His hands shook, shook so much it took him two tries to light his cigarette.
Aimee had seen a lot of nervous flics in bars like this. The ex-military type who'd joined the police approaching middle age.
"Bien sur, got a new green Citroen and a girlfriend, the usual," Laure confirmed.
It must be nerve-racking to have a partner like that, Aimee thought. She took another sip, aware of the whispering and the pointed looks at Laure. Was there more to it?
"What's the buzz? You're up for promotion already?"
Laure took a deep breath and shook her head. Then she excused herself and joined Jacques.
Aimee downed her glassful, and had ordered another when she heard Laure's voice over the din. "The last time!" She saw Laure's flushed time. She was pounding her fist on the counter. The hush that fell over the bar was punctuated by the pinging of the pinball machine.
Aimee reached Laure's side just as Laure grabbed Jacques's drink. She seized Laure's hand before she could throw it.
"Tiens, Laure, what's the matter?"
Jacques's lips, which had been set in a thin line, formed a grin. "Having a partner's like being married, you know." He nudged Ouvrier, sitting next to him, wearing a Sunday-best pinstripe suit that Aimee knew he'd trotted out for the occasion. She'd only ever seen him in uniform until now. "Almost, eh, Ouvrier?"
Ouvrier's nervous laughter answered him. Others quickly joined in and amidst the tinkle of glasses conversations resumed.
"Time to go." Jacques stood up, placed a ten-franc note between the wet rings on the zinc bar, and shot Laure a look. "You coming or not?"
"She's having a conversation with me," Aimee said, her voice rising as she stepped closer to Jacques. "Aren't you off duty?"
"Since when is it your business?" he asked.
Before Aimee could answer, Laure tugged at her sleeve. "I'll be back in five minutes," she said in Aimee's ear. "I'm just going two blocks away."
Laure had a certain look in her eyes, the same look she'd had once when she'd given her report card to Aimee to hide.
The cafe owner waved away any payment and wiped the counter with a none-too-clean towel. "On the house," he said.
"Two blocks away? Jacques's a big boy, can't he handle it himself?" Aimee asked.
But Laure was already grabbing her coat from the rack. With her gloved hand she flashed five fingers at Aimee and followed Jacques through the door. Aimee watched them from the window as they talked. The next time she looked they'd crossed the street.
The red light flickered on Jacques's grinning face, giving him a devilish look. He stood by the dirty snowdrift, buttoning his jacket.
"It's not funny, Jacques!" Laure said.
He shrugged and his expression changed to one he bestowed on puppies or assumed when he'd surrendered a seat to an old lady on the bus. "A shame to make such a scene, Laure."
"You know why!"
"Sweet, you're sweet, Laure. Quit worrying about my prescriptions. The clinic prescribes these pills to keep my back from tensing up."
His nervous twitches had grown more pronounced. And the cocktail of pills he'd just swallowed with his drink hadn't stopped them.
"Look, Jacques, it's my career, too. And this is my first patrol assignment."
"Who helped you, eh? Who talked the commissaire into overlooking your test results?"
She'd had low scores, it was true. She ignored the flashing neon Sexodrome sign that was casting red flashes onto his face as well as the large photos of semiclad women advertising the fading allure of Pigalle.
He flicked his cigarette into the gutter. Its orange tip sputtered and died in the gray slush. "I wanted you along, partner," he said. "In case."
"In case?" Surprise and a quick ripple of pride coursed through her. Yet nothing was simple with Jacques.
"Why do I feel you're going to do something stupid?"
"But I won't if you're with me. I'm meeting an informer. I'll play it right."
Excerpted from Murder in Montmartre by Cara Black Copyright © 2006 by Cara Black. Excerpted by permission.
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