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Approaching Paris from the expressway out of Charles de Gaulle airport was disappointingly like approaching any other sprawling, rather ugly modern metropolis. Sammy Whitfield slumped back in the seat of the airport taxicab and watched mile on mile of working-class suburbs with concrete apartment towers, neon signs and supermarkets, with a jetlagged, dispirited feeling. It was early in the morning, she'd sat up all night on the TWA flight, and she was tired, though she knew she wasn't supposed to feel that way. After all, as people had gone out of the way to tell her the past few days, this was Paris.
One of the last things she'd done before leaving New York had been to write out her monthly check to her mother and enclose a letter which began, "Dear Ma -- Guess what? I'm going to Paris for a week. Can you imagine it!!! Me, in a place like Paris? I still can't believe it!!!"
After all these years she still wrote to her mother that way -- cheerfully, lots of exclamation points, so that whatever was happening to her, her mother wouldn't worry. It was silly kid stuff, and she was no longer, at twenty-six years of age, a kid. But her mother, who had scraped and saved to help her through art school, was one of the few good things in her life. The other was Jack Storm.
Sam grabbed at the back seat's leather strap as the driver squeezed between two trucks without diminishing his speed and took a right-hand turn off the expressway. She'd given her mother's letter to her secretary to mail and when it had still been on her desk at five o'clock, she'd picked it up and mailed it herself from Kennedy airport. Going to Paris was no big deal atJackson Storm Enterprises, Inc.; having enough real authority to get your secretary to mail your letter was. It will come to you, Jack always told her; authority is a matter of experience in this business, give it time.
Jack, she thought. She wished she could stop worrying. He hadn't been there to see her off at the airport and that was the first time that had happened. Jackson Storm, tall, handsome, commanding, sweeping through the VIP lounge, usually with photographers in attendance, with his arms full of roses to make an occasion of his creation, Sam Laredo. Taking a trip somewhere had become so familiar she didn't even think about it, but this time Mindy Ferragamo had been there in Jack's place with the bouquet of roses and a note saying 'Love.' It was unsigned, as usual, because Jack Storm was still, in spite of what had happened between them and in spite of his half promises to her, a married man.
Nothing was wrong, Mindy had assured her. Jack was in San Francisco, the company jet delayed by weather, nothing more than that. He was depending on her to do what no one else could do at the moment: Go to Paris and report on the international division's little problem. Jack, Mindy Ferragamo had repeated, was depending on her. And after all, it was Paris.
The taxi started abruptly down the narrow streets of Montmartre, and Sam, pressing her face to the taxicab window, stared at the white domes of the church of Sacré Coeur rising above it. Now that they were in the city itself, Paris was beginning to look more like the pictures in the guidebooks and postcards she'd stuffed in her duffel bag.
Not to worry. Mindy Ferragamo had said two days ago, we're not going to send you to Paris unprepared, Sammy.
She'd been sent down to Jean Ruiz, head of Jackson Storm fashion coordination and publicity to be briefed, because Jean had worked in Paris for years as a fashion reporter for a string of Midwestern newspapers and knew all about it. Paris, the publicity head had told her, was divided into two parts -- the older, now somewhat passé district off the rue de la Paix, and the newer, trendier area with places like Dior, St. Laurent and Cardin along the avenue Montaigne. The Maison Louvel was in the older part in a street called the rue des Bénédictines.
Paris, the city of lights, the publicity head had rhapsodized, the floodlit public buildings, the parks, the banks of the river Seine -- it was fantastic, simply a must-see in anybody's lifetime. Paris was the world capital of fashion in everything gloriously, fabulously unaffordable and not just clothes. The jewels, the art world, the playground of the rich and famous -- Paris was the culmination of dreams. If you didn't believe it, Jean Ruiz had told her, just wait until you get there.
Below Montmartre the driver raced the little Renault taxi past the great open square of the Place de l'Opéra as though setting time trials for the Grand Prix de Monaco. Sam braced her feet on the floor-board and got a fleeting glimpse of great boulevards bumper to bumper with traffic, even though it was early on a Saturday morning, continuous eighteenth-century buildings and enough intersections filled with fountains, statues and obelisks to honor every war, major or minor, the French nation had fought. Stay out of the Bois de Boulogne at night, Jean Ruiz had warned, it's full of hookers and one is as likely to get mugged there as in Central Park. The water's safe to drink, you can get a reasonably good hamburger at Burger King on the Champs Élysées if you're just going nuts without one, but the Champs is wild after dark, full of tourists and French teenagers looking for some action. And purse snatchers and pickpockets, especially gypsies, make the boulevard hazardous. This year the French are crazy about anything American, particularly American jeans, food and American money, and are friendlier than they've been in the past.
"God knows what this thing looks like," Mindy Ferragamo had said in the VIP lounge at Kennedy. "The rue des Bénédictines is over with Chanel and Grès and Nina Ricci, and it's not a bad address. On the other hand, who knows? It might be a dressmaker's shop in a couple of rooms in a basement."
The taxi turned into a little side street, swerved two wheels up on the curb, and jerked to a stop.
"Hôtel," the Paris cabbie announced. He turned to look at Sam with the same smoldering look with which he had greeted her at the airport. He looked more Arab than French, a swarthy youth in a heavy leather jacket with a lidded stare that swept over her denim jacket and the curve of her breasts and lingered at her wide mouth and blonde hair appreciatively. "You pay," he demanded, sticking out his hand.
A brass plaque on the side of the building before them said: Maison Louvel, Couture. As far as Sam knew, they were in the right place. "Okay, I pay," she told him, opening the cab door to get out.
As the taxi pulled away, she stepped back to get a good look at Number 5, rue des Bénédictines. It was tall, the only building in the narrow, dead-end street and seemingly a part of the solid wall of eighteenth-century buildings that stretched for miles in this part of Paris. The soot-stained, white sandstone façade rose four and a half stories to a slate mansard roof topped with a forest of chimney pots. At ground level medieval-looking massive wooden doors, their varnish somewhat bare in spots, were decorated with lion-headed brass door knockers with rings in their mouths. In the United States, Number 5 would have been a museum or a national monument. In Paris it was just another building.
The only modern, jarring note in the street was a sinister-looking black-on-black sports car, with air foils jutting up over its trunk, that had been parked a little farther down next to another plane tree.
Beyond the massive doors of Number 5 a cobblestoned tunnel passed under the front part of the house to an open area that had obviously been built for passengers disembarking from horse-drawn carriages. In a brilliant patch of sunlight beyond was an interior courtyard with two French automobiles parked side by side and a scruffy, black-painted motorcycle.
Sam stood looking at the courtyard for a long moment, thinking that it looked as though she had stepped into a set from some old movie about Paris like Gigi or Moulin Rouge. Suddenly she had a feeling that what was supposed to be a simple inspection was actually going to be very complicated.
Jackson Storm International had been in negotiations for months to buy a French textile mill and finishing mill in Lyons, but the package of papers sent from the brokers in London on the sale's closing had enclosed an unexpected listing of some additional properties not described in the original package. There had been a small, valuable strip of development property in the south of France in the resort village of St. Tropez, an apartment building in a working-class neighborhood of the small city of Uzes, and something the Paris legal firm described as an haute couture house called the Maison Louvel on the rue des Bénédictines.
No one seemed to recognize the name. One thing the Maison Louvel was not, a hurried telephone call to Paris from Mindy Ferragamo's office confirmed, was a fashion house registered with the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture, the Paris trade association.
"Okay, so we haven't bought Pierre Cardin by mistake," Jack Storm had said. "So what is it?"
The Maison Louvel's ground floor entrance was flanked by wooden Doric columns covered in peeling, cream-colored paint. Inside double French doors in the same color opened to a great white marble fin de siècle staircase. The Maison Louvel, if it was open for business on Saturday morning, was singularly quiet. The tunnel and wooden doors shut out any sounds from the street, but there was no noise from the interior of the house either.
After the initial flap had died down about the unexpected items acquired in the package deal for the French textile mill, Jackson Storm headquarters in New York had placed calls to a number of fashion magazines and Women's Wear Daily to discreetly inquire if anyone had ever heard of a Maison Louvel in Paris. At Harper's Bazaar a senior editor said it sounded vaguely familiar but thought Louvel's had gone out of business forty or fifty years ago. W contributed the information that a friend of Diana Vreeland's said the last Louvel designer, a Mademoiselle Claude something, had been a girlfriend of Coco Chanel's.
"What the hell do you expect, anyway, from W?" Jack Storm had snorted.
The bottom part of the Maison Louvel buildings smelled, in the slightly moist spring air, like dust, marble and mildew. Sam paused at the bottom of the stairs, looking up to see that the staircase with its wrought-iron railing rose up from the ground floor through the center of the building to a skylight four or five stories above. There was not a soul in sight, but faint noises that drifted down the staircase indicated the Maison Louvel was open. A faint reverberation of voices and footsteps and a slamming of distant doors came to her. A grating howl like a rusty piece of machinery was even louder.
Only a few top executives at Jackson Storm Enterprises had known of the purchase of the French textile mill, and even they didn't have the details. A week ago, in a particularly tense meeting of the Western wear division -- consisting of Sy Kingman of Art Hammer Handcrafted Boots of Dallas, Eugenia Kleinberg of the subteen fashion line Junior Lone Star and Sam Laredo of the Western jeans -- the group had been looking at a mountain of discouraging sales figures when the subject of the Paris fashion house had come up. "Sammy," the Storm King had said, fixing his famous brilliant blue eyes on his nominal head of the Western jeans division, "how'd you like to go to Paris?"
On the landing, paneled with a large plate-glass mirror veined with age and without some of its silver backing, Sam paused and let the heavy duffel bag slip from her shoulder. She hadn't looked in a mirror since she'd left New York, and she never saw her reflection, even now, without a small shock. Her hairstyle, created by an avant-garde Greenwich Village hairdresser, had been hot last year when she'd introduced the new Sam Laredo image and had been reproduced on the covers of at least three major national magazines. Her straight, silky tow mop had been razored short and shaggy in front and pulled in strands over her forehead, making her eyes seem even bigger with iridescent gray shadow and a heavy coat of black mascara. In the words of the Jackson Storm marketing expert who had ordered and approved it, the hairstyle was supposed to convey a natural, even unkempt look to go with the Sam Laredo line of casually contrived Western chic. The same marketing genius had also sent for a physical fitness expert to develop what he had called Samantha's "buns" for the first jeans TV commercials.
Now, Sam thought, squinting at herself a little apprehensively, her freckles were covered with make-up foundation, her mouth had been skillfully rearranged in a sensuously curved line accentuated with pale pink lip gloss, her buns were nicely developed thanks to the body-building expert, and Jack Storm himself had drilled into her that cool air of surface assurance that perfected the image. These days, when people didn't recognize her as Sam Laredo, the star of the Storm King jeans ads, they thought she was a professional model.
She knew she still wasn't anybody to send to Paris as a representative of Jackson Storm, Inc., but that didn't seem to matter. "The chance of a lifetime, kid," publicity head Jean Ruiz had told her. And all you've got to do, Sam told her image in the mirror, is not screw up.
She was going to walk into an haute couture house in Paris and introduce herself as a visitor from New York, an informal observer to report on what Jackson Storm International had unintentionally acquired as part of their French textile mill deal. Crazier things had happened in the rag trade, but this one took guts. Chutzpah, Jack called it.
Whatever was going on in the Maison Louvel at the moment, she thought, looking up, it was noisy. The last flight of steps to the first-floor landing showed another set of French doors. There were no business signs, dress displays or showcases -- it might have been someone's slightly shabby town house. The noises, as she listened, grew even louder.
First there was a woman's voice raised to an anguished pitch, then a thud as if something heavy had been dropped. The noises seemed to explode. A man's deep baritone voice shouted out something in French and then the screaming began.
Sam grabbed the duffel bag by its strap and took the remaining steps two at a time.
She had almost reached the first-floor landing when the French doors there banged open. An incredible apparition, that of a willowy, astonishingly beautiful young woman with red hair, wearing a white satin nightgown, burst out on the landing and stared breathlessly at Samantha for a long moment. Then, wildly, the girl shrieked something incomprehensible.
The redhead's pointed, delicately shaped breasts under the clinging satin were heaving dramatically. Her lovely magnolia-pale face was covered with heavy makeup, her eyes rimmed with thick black mascara, her mouth an anguished, magenta slash. She was screaming hysterically at the top of her lungs. "Au secours -- aidez-moi! Elle se meurt!"
With an acutely dislocated look, the redhead's eyes widened as she seemed to discover Sam on the steps below. Then in a ghastly gesture she lifted long white hands to show red-tipped fingers. "Mon Dieu! Vite! Apportez-moi une aspirine!"
Sam hadn't understood a word. She was too busy staring at the girl's hands and the red blotches that splattered the revealing nightdress as though someone had thrown paint all over the front of it.
Whoever she was, the beautiful redhead was covered with blood.
Copyright © 1987 by Maggie Davis