Aimée Leduc opened the tall windows of her apartment overlooking the Seine, which bordered the tree-lined quai. She inhaled the scent of flowering lime. Despite the humidity she was glad to be home.
She knew it was time to let the past go. The hard part was doing it.
She sank into the Louis XV sofa, ruffled her short, spiky hair, and reached for her laptop. Time to concentrate on Leduc Detective's computer security contracts. Rent loomed. So did other bills.
Her phone rang. "Allô?" she answered irritably.
"Aimée Leduc?" a woman's voice asked.
"Who is it?"
A pause. "Daughter of Jean-Claude and Sydney Leduc?"
Aimée lost her grip on the phone. No one had referred to her that way in years. She recovered and put the phone to her ear again.
"You were looking for information about your father?" the woman's heavily German-accented voice asked.
Had word of her inquiries reached the right person ... at last?
"You knew him?"
A long pause. Hope fluttered in Aimée's chest. In the silence, she heard the whine of a passing motor scooter from the quai.
"Nein, I knew your mother."
Her mother? "Sydney Leduc?"
"Her name was different," the voice went on. "But shetalked about you."
The last time Aimée had seen her mother, she'd been wearing an old silk kimono, standing at the stove and heating milk. Her long hair, knotted and held in place by a worn pencil, escaped down her neck. Rain splattered against their courtyard windows, steamy from the heat. The Mozart piano concerto theme from the film Elvira Madigan played on the kitchen radio. "Don't forget your raincoat," her mother had said, then "Crap," under her breath, as the milk foamed and overflowed. Those were the last words eight-year-old Aimée remembered her speaking.
Her mother left the apartment that day, while Aimée was at school, and never returned.
"Do you know where my mother is?"
"Maybe we should meet and talk," the voice said.
"Yes, certainly," she said.
Then doubt hit her. Could this woman be an Internet crawler, one who searched the personals and got innocent people's hopes up? Someone with a sick idea of fun? "Excuse my caution," Aimée said. "But first I need to know ..."
"That I'm for real?" the voice interrupted her. "I spent time with your mother. You have a fish-shaped birthmark on your left thigh, do you not?"
Aimée's hand instinctively went to her thigh. It was true.
"When can we meet?" Aimée asked.
"May I come over?"
Aimée paused, wary. "We could meet at a café ..."
The voice interrupted again. "I'm leaving Paris tonight. You live at 7, Quai d'Anjou on L'lle Saint Louis, yes? I'll be there soon."
"First, tell me how you knew my mother."
A car door slammed in the background.
"We were cell mates."
Cell mates? Her mother in prison? Her father never spoke of her mother after she left, nor had her grandparents. Now her curiosity was mixed with fear.
She looked over to her writing desk. Her answering machine blinked red, filled with messages. She hit the play button. The first message came from René, her partner in the Leduc Detective agency.
"It's a go!" he shouted. "I'm about to ink our security systems contract with Media 9! I need to convince them to give us a retainer."
Finally! Her relief was cut short by the sound of the buzzer.
Miles Davis, her bichon frise puppy, growled as Aimée answered the door. The tall, bony woman at the entrance stared at her. Her brown shoulder-length hair was flecked with gray, and she wore brown pants and a jacket. A nondescript appearance. However, the Danish clogs provided an ambiguous clue: bad feet, or an artist.
"You are Aimée Leduc?" The woman's eyes, wide set and gray, sized her up.
"Ja, the resemblance is clear."
"Who are you?" Aimée asked, the words catching in her throat.
"Jutta Hald," she said, hefting her bag higher on her shoulder. "Give me five minutes, then decide if you believe me."
Aimée hesitated, then showed her down the hall into the old wood-paneled dining room.
"Going somewhere?" Jutta Hald pointed to Aimée's scattered luggage on the floor.
"How did you say you knew my mother?" Aimée asked, motioning for her to sit.
Jutta Hald sank into the couch. Outside Aimée's window, pinpricks of light reflected from windows on the riverbank opposite. Heat still hung like a damp blanket over the rippling Seine.
"Frésnes, prisoner number 6509," she said. "We shared a cell in 1976 and 1977."
Aimée gripped Miles Davis tight. "What had she done?"
"High crimes against the state Terrorism."
Terrorism.... Her heart sank.
"Aren't you going to offer me coffee, something to drink?" Jutta Hald asked, glancing around the apartment. She emitted a faint vinegary odor.
"But that was years ago," Aimée said. Suspicion fought with her longing to know about her mother. "Maybe you should get to the point."
Jutta Hald's lips tightened. She unbuckled a brown leather bag, a ragged remnant from the seventies by the look of it.
"You're in your early thirties, right?"
"Close enough," Aimée said. "Look, I need to see some proof that you really knew my mother and that you're telling the truth."
"She wrote things. Lots of them," Jutta Hald said, pulling out an envelope. "The guard confiscated this during a lockdown. Take a look." Jutta Hald set the envelope on Aimée's marble-topped claw-footed table. She took out a package of unfiltered Turkish cigarettes, lit one.
The short hairs on Aimée's neck bristled as she reached for the envelope. "How did you get this?" Aimée asked.
"You don't know much about prison, do you?" Jutta Hald replied, taking a drag.
The yellowish creased envelope with FRÉSNES PRISON stamped on it seemed to glow in the afternoon light. Aimée reached for it, trying to control the trembling of her hands. What if the mother who deserted her really had been a convicted terrorist?
Her heart hammered. And what if it wasn't true?
Aimée expected something weighty with answers, reasons, and excuses. But the envelope felt curiously light as she held it suspended aloft in the rays of the sun.
For a moment, the face of her mother appeared to her. The carmine red lips and eyes crinkling in laughter. The warmth of her large hands, the faint smell of lilies of the valleymuguetsclinging to her clothes.
Aimée didn't want to open the envelope. She wanted to keep her mother hovering in the ether, between reality and her little girl's fantasy.
Slowly, she opened the envelope.
Inside lay a once-glossy sheet torn from a fashion magazine. Wrinkled and worn. She unfolded the paper carefully.
A washing-machine advertisement covered one side. On the other, a mother, sweater draped around her shoulders with sleeves knotted, strolled hand in hand with a child in the Palais Royal garden. The caption read, "Arpége for the active womanfor every part of her life!"
Under the caption was written in ballpoint pen: "Like Amy, like us ... she loved that sandbox."
Below that, Aimée saw skillful cartoons of a pudgy mouse with long whiskers bordering the bottom of the page.
A dagger went through her heart. Her "Emil," her stuffed mouse! The ragged little doudou she had hugged to sleep every night. For years. How would anyone know this but her mother?
Aimée emptied the envelope. That was all. She looked at the envelope again. The name B. de Chambly written in pencil was visible in the lower right-hand corner.
"Her name," Jutta Hald said.
"What does 'B.' stand for?"
"I forget," Jutta Hald said.
Not only her language but everything about Jutta Hald seemed stilted, forced.
"Tell me about her," Aimée said. She pulled Miles Davis closer.
"I was transferred. Later, I heard she'd been released."
"Released and then?"
"The trail leads to you." Jutta Hald crossed her spindly legs.
Jutta Hald looked around again, surveying the faded eighteenth-century murals on the twenty-foot ceilings.
"How do you keep this place clean?" She didn't wait for an answer, but wiped her palm on the table. "You don't."
Not only was the woman rude, she'd come for something and Aimée didn't know what. Shouldn't it be the other way around, wasn't she supposed to give information to Aimée?
"You've lived here a long time, haven't you?"
She didn't like the woman's manner or anything about her.
"Instead of offering me information," Aimée said, "you seem to want something, Madame Hald. What is it?"
The woman's pale face cracked into a huge and disconcerting smile. She wet her fingers, tamped the cigarette out between them, and put the stub in her pocket. "No one's called me Madame Hald in years." Jutta Hald shook her head, still smiling.
For a moment Aimée thought she looked human. "Tell me about her," she repeated.
"I'm a little short of cash right now."
"Maybe you just found this piece of paper, just heard some stories...."
"She was released in 1977; she must have come back here or gone to the cemetery."
Aimée had been in the lycée then. No, she'd been an exchange student in New York! Aimée grasped the table edge and took a deep breath. This woman spoke in riddles.
"What are you talking about?"
Jutta Hald looked down. Aimée wondered if she was assessing the carpet's price. "What do you want?" she demanded.
"You saw the proof," Jutta Hald said. "Fifty thousand francs."
Fifty thousand francs! That was office rent for six months!
"What do I get for it?"
"I have more things," Jutta said. "Her things."
"Things like her photo? Or a location where I can find her?" Aimée asked, hoping she didn't sound as desperate as she felt.
"Drawings," she said. "There's an anklet chain, an address book."
"Her address book?"
"Lots of foreign addresses in it," Jutta said, taking a deep breath. "Aah, free air, like I remember. So sweet after twenty years."
"But I don't have that kind of money."
In theory she did, but Leduc Detective's assets consisted of a bloated file of accounts receivable that René was trying to collect. He'd had little success with their big corporate clients, who took several months to pay up.
"I'm sure you can find it, if you want to," Jutta Hald said, jotting something in her notebook, then snapping it shut. "I came straight from prison, just to see you." She looked out the French doors that stretched from the floor to the ceiling. Then she picked up her bag and took another look around the room.
"You know," Jutta Hald said, "a little dusting and cleaning would improve this place."
Aimée bit back her reply.
"Guess you're not interested. I'm leaving."
Aimée hesitated. "Non...." She didn't want the woman to leave. She had an urge to entreat Jutta Hald to stay, to ask what her mother had said about her.
Jutta Hald's eyes darted around the apartment. Her long fingers pinched and worried the leather bag handle.
Her fidgeting made Aimée uneasy.
"Think about it," Jutta Hald said. "Maybe when your mother came back to your apartment ... she left something?"
Wouldn't her father have told her? Could her mother have come and gone without wanting to see Aimée, her daughter?
"This should convince you," Jutta said, pulling out a small bound notebook from her bag. Aimée saw a faded blue cover lettered in fine script: Stories of Emil's Life: a Royal Mouse in the Louvre.
Her heart caught.
"I believe she wrote this for you."
Something cracked inside Aimée. And those long-ago afternoons flowed back to her, afternoons spent together making up Emil's story, writing down lists of foods he ate, games he played, and pretending he slept in a matchbox.
"Look," Jutta Hald said, thrusting the notebook into her moist palms.
Aimée's hands shook as she grasped the musty cover. Afraid to drop it, she stopped, took a breath, then slowly opened the book.
The first page read, "For Amy."
"How did you get this?"
For a moment, Aimée was a little girl again, on her tiptoes tugging her maman's skirt, trying to see what she drew. Always out of reach.
With her forefinger and thumb she gingerly turned the first page and read: "Chapter OneHow Emil Came to Be Born on King Henri's Throne."
"You've seen my proof," Jutta Hald said. "Now admit it, she owes me my share."
"Share ... what do you mean?"
Jutta Hald's lip curled. To Aimée's horror, she grabbed the book back.
"Wait, please," Aimée said. "I'll get the money. Please, be fair."
"Life's not fair ... then you die," Jutta Hald said. "Think back. Didn't your mother ever send you presents, little boxes or keys ... maybe drawings?"
"If she did," Aimée paused, saddened, "I never saw them." She knew her father would have destroyed them, just as he had destroyed everything else that had to do with her mother.
Jutta dabbed a slight sheen of perspiration from her forehead with a handkerchief. "Pills," she said. "Awful ones, they make me pee all the time." She shook her head. "Where's your bathroom?"
Aimée showed her. She took a long time before emerging.
"Tell me about my mother," Aimée asked once more. "About the terrorism."
"Now you're speaking with negotiation in mind, ja? We can share."
"D'accord," Aimée said. Let Jutta Hald think what she wanted.
"She was a courier," Jutta Hald said.
"That's the polite term," Jutta Hald said. "A drug mule describes it better."
"My mother, involved with drugs?" Aimée tried to keep her surprise in check. "From where and to whom?"
"Mostly Morocco," Jutta said, then shrugged. "Some hashish connection. But I knew her before we were sent to prison."
"How did you know her?" Aimée asked.
"Back then we were all part of a loose network," said Jutta Hald. "Rumor was her group shifted weapons, set up safe houses and printing presses for the Haader-Rofmein gang."
Aimée leaned against the wall. It was as if Jutta Hald had struck her. Over the years, she'd imagined various scenarios. But never a mother in league with the notorious seventies Haader-Rofmein radicals, who kidnapped people, bombed jails, and robbed banks.
Were her mother's terrorist activities connected to the bomb that had killed her father? Her hands shook. But that had happened much later. "This connects to my father, doesn't it? That's how you found me."
"Enough questions," Jutta Hald's voice trailed off. "You don't seem interested in buying the address book." A look of fleeting remorse crossed the woman's face. She dropped her gaze, unable to meet Aimée's eyes.
"One day after school I found a note from my mother taped to the door telling me to stay with our neighbor," Aimée told her. "That's the last I heard from her. If the address book will help me find her, I'll get the money. But I need some time."
"You have until tonight," Jutta Hald said. "Then I'm gone."
"I'm leaving the country," Jutta Hald said, checking her watch. She rose and headed for the hall. "I'll contact you later. Have you a cell phone?"
Aimée gave her the number. The door slammed behind her.
Aimée sighed. Her checking account held less than a quarter of what Jutta Hald wanted. Leduc Detective had even less.
She ran to the French doors, flung them open, and leaned over the metal railing. The quai before her was empty.
Further up the street Jutta Hald emerged from beneath an overhang, walking with a brisk step. Aimée called out to her. But the incessant beep of a van backing up drowned out her words. At the end of the quai, Jutta Hald stopped. She turned and looked up at Aimée, gave her a half-smile, then disappeared from view.
Aimée pulled on her denim jacket. She was dying for a cigarette and rifled through her pocket for Nicorette gum. But all she came up with was a software encryption manual and a travel-size flacon of Citron Vert. She'd stopped smoking last week. Again.
The longing to see her mother, that bottomless desire dormant for years, had returned. Even if she was dead, just to know where she'd been buried. Constant and nagging, it was like a piece of gravel in her shoe.
Excerpted from Murder in the Sentier by Cara Black. Copyright © 2002 by Cara Black. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.