Nearly twenty years have passed since Mara Dunn’s sister Bedie, an orchid enthusiast, disappeared while on a hiking holiday in southwestern France. Mara remains determined to find out what happened—but her only real clue is a sequence of wild orchids, including a mysterious, previously unknown Lady’s Slipper, captured on a roll of film found in Bedie’s long-lost camera. With the help of Julian Wood, a reclusive English botanist, Mara begins her search . . . stumbling into decades’ worth of local secrets and putting herself in danger. Rich in lush descriptions of the Dordogne, and laden with savory details of French cooking, Deadly Slipper is rife with surprising twists and turns.
|Publisher:||Random House of Canada, Limited|
|Product dimensions:||4.14(w) x 6.84(h) x 1.07(d)|
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By Michelle Wan
Random HouseMichelle Wan
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"Maradonne," repeated the telephone voice. "I've been referred to you by someone who knows you, or knows of you-Monsieur La Pouge."
The accent was what he called straight-up American. Not a laid-back southern drawl. Not in-your-face New Yorkese, where "talk" rhymed with "squawk." But neutral, the tone slightly urgent.
"Ah," said Julian Wood, pushing his glasses up onto his forehead. He did not know any Maradonne. Or any La Pouge person, either.
"Because of your knowledge of wildflowers."
Julian thought hard. A fellow member of the Societe Jeannette-Daffodil Society-the local wildflower amateurs' club? Or an enthusiast who had come across his book, Wildflowers of the Dordogne/Fleurs sauvages de la Dordogne, what he liked to think of as the bilingual bible on local flora?
He was standing in his slippers on the stone floor of his kitchen, which, since it was the best-lit and largest room of his ancient cottage, also served as his workshop. He fiddled with a sprig of dry-pressed pepperwort that he had been in the process of framing. He wanted to get back to it.
"I have a problem," continued the voice, "and I need your advice. That is, your expertise. I wonder if I could ask for an hour of your time? On a consulting basis, of course."
Consulting? Well, he could consult with the best of them, but what on earth was this woman on about?
"I'm afraid-what-um-exactly is it that you want?"
There was a pause. "I just need a little botanical information. Look," she insisted, "can I come out to see you now? You live in Grissac?"
"Just outside, actually," he admitted weakly. He belonged to that species of middle-aged Englishman made nervous by pushy females.
"I can be there by-shall we say four?"
Turning his head, he looked out the window at rain, a cold March rain slanting out of an ugly sky that had hung for weeks over this region of southwestern France. A sudden gust rattled his windowpanes (in need of recaulking). He wondered, not for the first time, where Edith had got to.
"All right," he heard himself say, and told this Maradonne person how to find him.
Julian took one look at her and had a premonition of trouble. She was small, coming below his shoulder, with straight, black brows, a pointed chin, and an air of determination. Her face brought on a rush of uneasy associations with other determined women, dimly remembered, whom he had known. She was also soaking wet. That was because she had run through the downpour from the road, where she had been obliged to leave her car. She stood, hair plastered to her head, water coursing off her onto the flagstones of his gloomy vestibule.
"Mara," she seized his hand damply but firmly. "Mara Dunn."
Reluctantly, he helped her out of her raincoat and hung it on his wobbly tripod rack. She scrubbed vigorously at her short, dark hair, flicking water everywhere. The action left it upstanding and spiky, making her look oddly like a hedgehog and younger than she probably was. Forty? Forty-five? He wasn't good with women's ages.
"Well," he said with a stab at heartiness, "may as well come through. Awful day. Tea? Coffee?"
"Oh, tea, thanks, if it's not too much trouble." Her brisk voice grated already on his nerves.
She ignored his invitation to be seated in his front room. Just as well. Since he lived with no one but Edith, whose habits were bohemian at best, housekeeping was not a strong point with Julian. He had tried to make a fire, which was smoking unpleasantly on the hearth.
Instead, she followed him right into his kitchen where her attention was immediately seized by a contraption standing at one end of the room:
"What is that?" she laughed, waving at a series of bulky, rectangular frames fastened together with immense wooden screws. "Some kind of medieval instrument of torture?"
"Floral press, actually," he replied stiffly and slapped an aluminum kettle on the burner. "Nineteenth-century. I still use it. For preparing herbarium samples."
"Herb-what?" Her eyebrows arched.
"Dry-pressed flora. Once the only means of providing type specimens for horticultural classification and botanical study." The hedgehog had asked for his expertise-by god, she was going to get it.
She looked perplexed. He relented a little. "For drying plant material. In fact a microwave does just as well for most things, but I find the old-fashioned method gives a more antique finish. It's a simple process, really. Clamp the plants in the press. It's lined with blotting paper to take up the moisture. Tighten the screws from time to time. Whole thing takes about six weeks. Thick bits like stalks and flower heads have to be pressed separately from petals and leaves and reassembled later. Then I mount and frame everything for sale."
He waved at an arrangement of flattened flowers and leaves laid out on a sheet of corkboard on his kitchen table. "It's my off-season trade. In summer"-he rinsed out a couple of mugs-"I'm a landscape gardener."
He eyed her warily as she approached his worktable to pick up a stiff cluster of pale-yellow blossoms.
"Cowslips," he told her. "What the locals call coucous. An early-spring bloomer found along hedgerows and shady footpaths."
"Oh!" Dark eyes swiveled to fix him intently. "Can you identify it like that? Where certain kinds of flowers grow, I mean?"
He cocked an eyebrow. "Well, yes and no. Most plants are habitat-specific. However, there are lots of hedgerows and footpaths around here. What do you have in mind?"
She took a deep breath, a diver about to plunge.
"Julian. I'll get right to the point. If I showed you some photos of flowers, could you tell me-would you have any idea where they were taken?"
For a moment he entertained a suspicion that this was some crazy kind of test.
Quickly, she dug into her handbag and pulled out a thick brown envelope. "Please." She held it out to him.
With a sigh he slid his glasses down onto his nose and took it from her. It contained colored prints.
"But this is Beynac Castle," he objected, as the first shot revealed a fortified hulk perched on a cliff. It was a well-known local tourist site. "A few years ago, from the look of the cars."
"Yes. I left that in because it comes at the beginning of the roll. I thought it might give a general indication. There's also a pigeonnier." She fingered through to a print of a tall stone dovecote standing like a gaunt tower in the middle of a field. "But the rest of the photos are all flowers."
He frowned and flipped through them.
"Well," he said finally, "they're field orchids."
She waited, watching him tensely.
He shrugged. "Temperate species. Cousins to the more dramatic tropical varieties most people think of when you mention orchids. These are more modest plants, but every bit as beautiful, in a smaller way. And damned easy to miss unless you know how to spot them. But look here, these photos are in terrible condition. Some are almost impossible to make out. You want me to tell you where these things grow?"
"If you can." She had moved close enough for him to feel the dampness rising out of her hair and clothing, to catch a faint scent of sandalwood. He found the proximity slightly disturbing. He cleared his throat.
"Well, I can't. That is, not specifically. I mean, most of these, from what I can make out, are pretty widespread throughout the region. Beyond the fact that some like shade, others sun, and most grow in calcareous soils, it would be hard for anyone to tell you exactly where."
"But," she insisted, "you just said a certain kind of soil. Couldn't that be a clue?" She was not going to be put off.
"Calcareous?" He gave a harsh laugh. "Chalk. Pretty well describes the entire Dordogne Valley, certainly all of the middle reach, which is entirely underlain by chalky limestone."
The look of determination drained from her face, to be replaced by something like desperation. "You're absolutely sure there's no way?"
"Look," he said dryly, "I'm not a psychic." He returned the photographs. Her insistence was becoming irritating.
"No. Of course not." She slumped heavily into a chair.
Julian saw that, whatever her reasons, his visitor had placed a lot of hope in him. Now she was disappointed. More than disappointed. Crushed.
The kettle rattled on the burner. He turned away to make the tea, feeling mystified and thrown off by their exchange.
She did not answer. He put the teapot down and eyed her again. "Or something stronger?"
She stirred, looked up dully. "No. Thanks. Look, if you don't mind, I think I'll pass on tea. Anyway, I'm interrupting your work." She rose jerkily, dropped her bag, picked it up, and fumbled in it. "Can I-can I pay you something for your time?"
"Good god, no." He felt insulted.
"Well, if you're sure . . . ?" She regarded him uncertainly. "Then I'll be on my way."
She did not wait for him to help her with her coat. He stood by as she struggled into it, feeling somehow that he had failed this odd, impulsive woman with her unreasonable expectations. She shook his hand stiffly.
"Thank you. You've been very kind."
Through the bull's-eye window in the vestibule Julian could see rain sheeting off the overhanging roof.
"Er-do you want an umbrella?"
She forced a brittle smile. "I'll sprint."
He opened the door for her. She pulled up her collar and stepped out. In the next instant something struck her full in the chest. With a scream, she skidded backward, threw up her arms. Her handbag flew, hitting the ground for the second time. Before Julian could catch her, she landed hard on the wet flagstones. A large, writhing form straddled her while a vigorous lash repeatedly struck the rickety coatrack, knocking it from side to side until it, too, went over with a splintering crash.
Julian waded in, lunging and grabbing.
"Dammit Edith," roared Julian Wood, finally getting a hand on the collar of a large, very wet, exuberant dog. "Get off, you bloody beast! Get off!"
She had twisted her right ankle and had to be helped, carried by him really, back into his front room. It was an awkward, bumpy trip, and Mara was intimately aware of Julian's long, angular body, his thick pullover smelling slightly of damp wool, his rough, badly trimmed facial hair. She recalled his look of dismay-or was it shock?-when she had first entered his house, dripping water, mascara undoubtedly running down her face, and acknowledged with embarrassment that her attempted exit was even less graceful.
He deposited her on the sofa. Edith, a black-and-white short-haired pointer, was dragged away and shut up. Mara could hear her barks, whines, and frantic scrabbling from the back of the cottage.
"Better get that up." Julian swept away several days' accumulation of newspapers from the sofa so that she could raise her leg. Then he was gone again, retrieving her bag, placing it beside her, darting away into the kitchen, calling as he went, "Sorry about the dog. She just wanted to get inside. She hates the rain. I was wondering when she'd turn up."
He reappeared moments later with ice cubes wrapped lumpily in a tea towel. "Here. Get the swelling down. Nothing broken? Do you want a doctor?"
"No, no, I'm fine," Mara lied. Her ankle throbbed. Edith's howls were making the pain worse. "You ought to do something about her, you know."
"What? Let her out?"
"I meant, get her under control," Mara told him severely. "She's a liability."
He grinned, a sudden, attractive, boyish grin that illuminated his saturnine features. "Not guilty. Not my dog. Belongs to a farmer down the road, old Hilaire. Lets her run loose. She lives with me when she feels like it, and when she doesn't she buggers off somewhere else."
He shot away again. Mara closed her eyes. His comings and goings were making her dizzy.
However, the improvised cold pack was dulling the sharpness of the pain. She adjusted it around her ankle and looked about her: a low, small room full of mismatched furniture, threadbare carpets, and lots of litter. Pots of flowering plants crammed the window ledges. The walls were entirely taken up with books. Their worn spines suggested that all were well read.
He was back with a mug of tea and a couple of aspirins. "Here. Take these. When you feel better, if you can't drive, I'll run you back wherever you want to go."
Mara managed a smile. "Thanks. I'll be okay."
"No problem, really. Where are you staying?"
"Ecoute-la-Pluie." She opened her bag and gave him her card: Mara Dunn-Interior Designer/Decoratrice ensembliare.
Julian looked surprised. "You're not a tourist?"
She shook her head. "I'm sorry. I should have made that clear. I'm Canadian, but I live here."
"Ah," he said, as if that explained something. "Of course." He lowered himself into a leather easy chair-obviously his favorite since the arms and seat were badly worn. "And the photographs? Look," he said, against his better judgment, "don't you think you'd better tell me what this is all about?"
Wearily Mara let her head fall against the sofa back so that she gazed past him at an indeterminate spot on the ceiling. "Yes," she said at last. "The photos." Briefly she closed her eyes. "You see, nineteen years ago, my sister Bedie-Beatrice Dunn-I think my sister may have taken those pictures."
He stared at her blankly, waiting for her to go on.
"In 1984, my sister, Bedie, disappeared in the Dordogne." Mara had told this story many times. With each telling, the recital became bleaker, more mechanical, reducing the people in it to mere essential facts. "She'd come over with her boyfriend, Scott Barrow, for a hiking holiday. They were camping not too far from here at a place called Les Gabarres. It was early May, and they'd had a lot of rain. Scott wanted to push on. Bedie wanted to stay. They had a fight about it, and Scott packed up and took off.&
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