Commissaire Capucine Le Tellier and her husband, a renowned restaurant critic, are frequent and privileged guests of Paris's cultured society. Unfortunately, a more refined milieu doesn't keep unsavory behavior like murder off the menu. . .
When the body of acclaimed Chef Jean-Louis Brault and a shotgun are discovered in an antique Louis Vuitton portemanteau, the general consensus is suicide. Brault had been understandably distraught, if not quite unhinged, amidst rumors that his restaurant La Mère Denis might lose its rare third Michelin star. But when Capucine investigates the scene of the crime, she doesn't think it's only the boulliabaisse that smells fishy. And when Le Monde suggests that Capucine's investigation is a cover up for the lethal consequences of food critics everywhere--a profession in which her husband takes great pride--she will stop at nothing to solve the case.
Praise for Alexander Campion and the Capucine Culinary Mysteries
"Riveting gastronomic mystery. . . Readers will want a second helping." --Publishers Weekly on The Grave Gourmet
"Steeped in Parisian culture and class structure. . .this mystery makes for a fine getaway read." --Library Journal on Killer Critique
About the Author
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DEATH OF A CHEF
By ALEXANDER CAMPION
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2013 Alexander Campion
All rights reserved.
"Putain! Shit! What's in this goddamn thing? More sodding gold ingots for their collection?"
The stocky man in blue workers' overalls let his end of the trunk drop on the stair tread with a loud thud. Panting, he mopped his brow with his sleeve, shook his head in disgust, took the dead Gauloise out of the corner of his mouth, spat, replaced the cigarette. "It's going to come, Jean," he said to his partner, "the day we put all these fat-assed bourgeois that live off our sweat up against a wall and take care of them for good. You'll see."
Cécile smiled down at them sweetly. The men had just started up the third flight of gently sweeping oak stairs. The trunk, a pre–World War I Vuitton portmanteau, was absolutely precious. True, it had cost a small fortune, but transformed into a bar, it was going to absolutely make her new sitting room. As the two men lifted their burden with a grunt and renewed their climb, she smiled blissfully. It was going to be too, too darling.
Grumbling, the deliverymen wrestled the trunk into the apartment. Cécile led them into the sitting room, hesitated, and finally elected to have them set it up vertically in a corner by the window. Théophile, her husband, stared myopically through wire-rim glasses and wrinkled his nose.
"Is that what you bought?"
"Yes, dear. I told you. It's going to be a bar. You'll be able to serve our guests cocktails, and that way they won't drink your precious wines before dinner. You remember, don't you? We discussed it."
Théophile seemed mollified. "Of course. Drinking wine without food is an egregious solecism. Yet another thing we have to thank the Americans for—"
The man called Jean glowered at them as he mopped his face with a grubby handkerchief. "Listen, pal. We're not all members of the leisure classes. Some of us have a day's work to do, so sign the goddamn receipt and let us get out of here."
Théophile ignored him and looked quizzically at his wife. "But if it's just an empty steamer trunk, why is it so heavy? Did you buy something else at the flea market?"
"Nothing. Just this fabulous piece. Don't you just love it?" Cécile said, scribbling her signature on the form.
The deliveryman tore off the strip that bound the three copies, handed the bottom copy to Cécile, hovered for a few seconds, demanding a tip with surly glances, and then lumbered out of the apartment with his partner, shaking his head in disgust at the stinginess of the rich.
The trunk was chest high. Over the century it had been in existence, the famous Vuitton-monogrammed brown oilcloth had mellowed to sepia, and the leather trim and strengthening wood battens had darkened to mahogany. The piece radiated the gravitas of a serious antique. It was so going to be the pièce de résistance of the room.
"Wait 'til you see the inside," Cécile said. "It doesn't have any of the usual drawers, just a wooden rod and those wonderful wood hangers. Wouldn't it have been sublime to find all your clothes waiting for you, hanging up in your own private little closet when you arrived in your stateroom?"
Cécile snapped open the two brass hasps and struggled to open the trunk. The thick pile of the carpet resisted. Théophile stepped in to help and, with a sharp wrench, opened it wide. His hand went to his mouth, and he gagged. By his side, Cécile leaned in for a closer look.
As Théophile ran to the bathroom, retching, Cécile picked up the phone and punched in a number.
"Police Judiciaire," a voice answered crisply.
"Commissaire Le Tellier, please. Could you tell her that Madame de Rougemont is on the line and that it's urgent, extremely urgent?"
After a very short pause a new voice came on the line.
"Urgent?" There was amused sarcasm in the tone.
"Absolutely. I really need you to see something I bought at the Biron flea market yesterday."
"Cécile, you're sweet. But I'm completely up to my eyeballs today. Why don't Alexandre and I drop by on Saturday to see your treasure? We could take you out to lunch after."
"Ma chérie, we can do that, too, of course. But I'm afraid you really do need to come right away, and with some of your police people, or whatever they're called. My treasure was delivered with something absolutely horrible inside."
Half an hour later Commissaire Capucine Le Tellier rose, swayed back and forth in the rattling, glass-paneled, coffin-sized elevator of Cécile's building with one of her detectives, Brigadier-Chef Isabelle Lemercier, a close-cropped, muscular blond woman whose face was heavily studded with piercings. Capucine knew the elevator well. One tenth of it belonged to her best friend, and she had been in it countless times. The building refused to modernize the ancient unit, still equipped with a folding wooden seat to ease the journey for the aged and infirm and a RENVOI button to send the elevator back to the ground floor once the passenger had alighted. Through the glass panels they could see two other detectives. One, svelte, elegantly dressed in a linen suit, with long, glossy auburn locks—Brigadier David Martineau—raced up the circular staircase wrapped around the elevated shaft two by two, a small boy trying to beat the elevator. The other, a huge olive-skinned North African—Brigadier Mohammed Benarouche, known to everyone as Momo—lumbered up slowly, nearly a flight behind.
A pale and tight-lipped Cécile waited for them on the landing. Mechanically, she kissed Capucine on both cheeks.
"It's in here," Cécile said, ushering the four detectives into the sitting room, hesitating nervously, then disappearing into the back of the apartment.
Inside the trunk, a male cadaver, completely naked, huddled in a tight fetal position. The body was stringy and muscular, no longer in the flush of youth but not advanced into middle age, either. It was impossible to be more precise since he had no face. A double-barreled shotgun rose from between his naked legs like an overlong phallus. The right hand hung limply, fingers grazing the bottom of the trunk as if they had fallen away from the trigger.
As the detectives examined the body without touching, a dull metallic aluminum clatter behind them announced the arrival of the PTS forensic squad—the Police Technique et Scientifique—clamorously pushing a clattering foldable aluminum gurney.
A young man energetically approached Capucine. "Commissaire Le Tellier?"
"Ajudant Challoneau, PTS." He shook her hand with the vigorous one-two pump of the business world.
Snapping on latex gloves with the exaggerated joy of a TV-comedy proctologist, he poked, prodded, and fiddled with the limbs of the body, then finally reaching up, grasped the morning-after-pizza remains of the face and turned it toward the room.
"A perfect Janus," he murmured. "The other side is intact, Commissaire. Have a look."
The entire blast of the shotgun had hit the right side of the face. The other side, untouched, presented the countenance of a Roman senator, aquiline nose, slim lips, receding hair line accenting a high, intellectual forehead.
"Of course, you can never be sure before the autopsy, Commissaire, but it certainly looks like a suicide. The wound certainly could have come from the shotgun in that position. Look. Here's the hole where the shot exited—"
"Yeah," interrupted Isabelle. "When the trunk was tipped on its side, the hole would have been on the bottom. That's why the delivery guys never saw it."
Capucine noticed that the brass corner reinforcements of the trunk were deeply scored with bright scratches, as if the trunk had been recently dragged over a rough surface.
"And he managed to snap the latches shut before he shot himself?" David asked.
"No, dummy," Isabelle said with curled lips. "Obviously, the delivery guys did that. They're not going to try to haul a trunk that pops open at every step, now are they, asshole?"
As the two detectives bickered, the PTS agents techniques took photographs, then extracted the body from the trunk and laid it on an open black plastic body bag on top of the now fully deployed gurney.
During the maneuver, Challoneau commented, "The problem with cases like this is that it takes forever to get an identification of the body. Unless someone reports someone missing, we have nothing to go on. Unlike the rest of the civilized world, we have yet to create a centralized computer database for dental work. Sure, we can get a guy's dentist to identify a stiff, but we have to know who he is first."
Now that the body was stretched out, Capucine noticed a chevalière, a signet ring with a well-worn coat of arms, on the ring finger of the left hand.
"Ajudant, what if you printed that and let me have it for a day? I know an expert on heraldry who might be able to identify it and give us the name of the deceased."
One of the agents techniques dusted the ring with dull gray aluminum fingerprint powder, found no prints, pulled the ring off, dropped it into a plastic bag, and handed it to Capucine.
Two of the agents rolled the body out onto the landing and prepared for the difficult descent down the circular stairway. Two others closed the portmanteau trunk, flipped it over on its side, and grabbed the handles, ready to follow the gurney.
Cécile, revivified now that the apartment was hers once again, followed them out onto the landing.
"Don't forget I'm going to need that back. It was irresistible before, but now it's going to be the best conversation piece ever."
"Hubert," Capucine's mother said over-loudly to her husband, "do you hear? Capucine is delighted that her best friend, Cécile, has moved back to Paris." Her parents had spoken about her over her head as long as she could remember. And, true to form, her father showed not the slightest interest.
"I think she found Switzerland as boring as her job there with a giant corporation," Capucine said, faithful to the role of the dutiful daughter. "So she negotiated a partnership in a Paris venture capital firm and is going to be investing in computer-game companies."
"Computer games?" Madame Le Tellier was puzzled. She opened her mouth to ask a question, but thought better of it. Instead she followed the more rewarding path of scolding her daughter. "You see, ma chérie, you could be doing something like that. You're much more intelligent than Cé—"
She was cut off by the loud braying laugh of her nephew Jacques, a foppish young man who held a vague, but apparently exalted, position in the DGSE, France's intelligence service. Family lore described him as being "very successful in the Ministry of the Exterior."
"Ma tante," Jacques said. "Your sweet little daughter has already modeled her life after video games. Her greatest cultural influence is a game called Grand Theft Auto. You get to shoot hoes and moes. And now Capucine has transcended even that, graduating from the virtual to the real. She's a plant that has blossomed."
"Hoes and moes?" Capucine's father asked. Etymology was one of his hobbies.
"Prostitutes and homosexuals," Alexandre explained.
"How interesting," Monsieur Le Tellier said. "It's curious that both terms have different syllabic origins. I wond—"
"Interesting!" Madame Le Tellier interjected. "On est à table. I forbid this sort of conversation when we eat." Her eyes shot daggers at Capucine. Her unspoken thought was perfectly clear to everyone at the table. This general abandonment of propriety was the inevitable consequence of a child who had defied her family to join the police.
Alexandre, Capucine's husband and one of the most well-known French food critics, had been examining the pair of partridges on his plate anxiously, clearly waiting for Madame Le Tellier to lift her fork so he could dig into the perfectly browned little carcasses. His impatience with the family squabble was obvious. It had been nearly eight months since he had eaten a game bird. The fall was a glorious time for a gastronome. He knew the plump, round birds came from the Château de Maulévrier, the family seat, currently owned by Madame Le Tellier's brother—Jacques's father—and would be deliciously gorged from foraging through corn stubble. Enough was enough. It was high time to get on with the meal.
"Madame, nothing is more magical than the odor of the first partridge of the season. You're giving us a real treat tonight."
Madame Le Tellier patted the top of Alexandre's hand by way of thanks. She realized she had gone too far with her daughter. The gesture looked like a warm one, but it was no secret at the table that Madame Le Tellier disapproved almost as much of her daughter's decision to marry a food critic nearly twice her age—even if he was wellborn and even titled—as her unconscionable idea of joining the police force. As far as anyone could tell, she would never accept either of her daughter's choices.
Madame Le Tellier lifted her fork. Alexandre beamed.
"So," said Jacques with a Cheshire cat smile, "why don't you tell Tante Coralie about your latest case? You know how she loves Vuitton." He brayed a donkey's laugh in a screeching falsetto.
At the word case Madame Le Tellier returned her fork to its place beside her plate. Alexandre's brows moved microscopically closer to each other for an instant; then he relaxed and tucked happily into his partridge. The fork had been lifted. It was not required that the hostesses actually begin to eat.
"Capucine, whatever is Jacques talking about?" Capucine's father asked her.
"Cécile found a body in a Vuitton portmanteau she bought at the Puces."
"A body of what?" Madame Le Tellier asked, perplexed once again. Her daughter's ability to confuse her was endless.
"An actual dead body. Cécile's redecorating her apartment and she bought the trunk to turn it into a bar. When it arrived, there was a dead person inside."
Madame Le Tellier was outraged. She shot a glance at her husband, demanding he intervene and order the conversation back into the norms of propriety. She was dismayed that he, for once, seemed interested.
"A bar?" he asked. "Her husband, Théophile, is one of the foremost amateur oenologists in France. I hardly see him setting up a bar in his living room to serve Bull Shots, or whatever, to his guests."
"Actually, he's all for it," Alexandre said. "It seems he despises having his grand crus lapped up as apéros before dinner. Apparently, he would rather give them Bull Shots, whatever they may be, and save his wines for dinner."
"Enough about Bull Shots, ma cousine," said Jacques. "Tell us about the body. Was it a nubile little creature, completely naked, with stunningly enormous nichons?"
"Actually, it was a man, but he was completely naked. It seems he committed suicide. The poor fellow shot himself with a shotgun and blew most of his face off. You see—"
"Capucine, that's quite enough. We're à table! This sort of conversation is entirely inappropriate," Capucine's mother said. She continued, addressing her husband, "Hubert, I warned you our daughter would no longer be sortable if you lost control of her development. But you wouldn't listen, would you? And now look where we are."
Capucine crossed her arms, a vexed schoolgirl. It took all her self-discipline not to storm out of the dining room and retreat into her old bedroom, slamming the door behind her. In fact, she was already on the balls of her feet—shod in Jimmy Choo snakeskin slingbacks with a peep-toe she found irresistible—before she remembered she now had her own apartment, a large, rambling affair in the Marais that might have been Alexandre's since time immemorial, but was definitely now her domain. What had ever possessed her to actually suggest to her mother that she come for dinner? She bit her lip. But, remembering her mission, her petulance evaporated.
"You know, Mother, I'm going to ask you to help me on this case."
"Help you on a case? Well, I never! Not at the table, in any case. We'll discuss it after dinner. In private," Madame Le Tellier said, torn between outrage and curiosity.
The rest of the meal was as anodyne as any at Capucine's parents'. Jacques was politely outrageous; Madame Le Tellier clucked; Capucine's father chatted happily with Alexandre, frowning every five minutes or so, when he remembered that he was expected to disapprove of him. Partridge gave way to salad, which in turn yielded to cheese, which surrendered to dessert. Finally, it was time to move to the salon for coffee.
Excerpted from DEATH OF A CHEF by ALEXANDER CAMPION. Copyright © 2013 by Alexander Campion. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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