Too small for a bomb, Aimée Leduc thought, nudging with her high-heeled toe at the tiny red box on the cold landing outside Leduc Detective’s office. No card. Curious, she picked up the red gift-wrapped box, sniffed. Nothing floral. A
The timed hallway light clicked off, plunging the landing into darkness. She shivered, closed the frosted glass door behind her, and hit the light switch. The chandelier’s crystal drops caught the light and reflected in the old patinated mirror over the fireplace.
For once the high-ceilinged nineteenth-century office was warm, too warm. The new boiler had gone into overdrive. Her nose ran at the switch from the chill January evening to a toasty, warm office. She set down her shopping bags—January was the season of soldes, the big sales. She’d blown her budget.
Et alors, yogurt and carrots at her desk for the next week.
She slung her coat over the chair and noticed a chip on her
rouge-noir-lacquered pinkie. Zut. She’d have to spring for a manicure.
The office phone trilled, startling her.
“Tell me you found Meizi’s birthday present, Aimée,” came the breathless voice of René, her business partner at Leduc
Detective. “The damned jeweler screwed up the delivery.”
“Small red box? You mean it’s not for me?” she joked. She shook the box and heard a rattle. Maybe those jade earrings she’d seen him looking at. “You’re serious about Meizi? I mean,
that kind of serious?”
“One day you’ll meet your soul mate, too, Aimée.”
Soul mate? He’d known Meizi what, two months? But
Aimée bit her tongue. So unlike René to rush into something.
A surge of protectiveness hit her. She ought to check this girl out, see what she could learn from a quick computer background search. Could be a little ticking bomb, all right.
“Save my life, eh?” René said. “Bring it to the resto, Chez
“But I’m in the middle of a security proposal, René,” she answered, hoping he didn’t hear the little lie in her voice. She surveyed their bank of computers, which were running security checks, updating client systems she’d programmed before she left. The boring bread and butter of their computer security firm.
“Take a taxi, Aimée,” he said, his voice pleading. “Please.”
Meizi must have something his previous girlfriends from the dojo didn’t. Better to check her out in person. Aimée put the box in one coat pocket and dug through the other for her cell phone.
“A taxi, with this traffic? Métro’s faster, René.”
She grabbed her leopard-print coat and locked the office door.
Twenty minutes later she ran up the Métro steps, perspiring and dodging commuters. Frustrated, she found herself at the exit farthest from where she wanted to be, by the Romanesque church that was now the Musée des Arts et Métiers. Harmonic
Gregorian chanting wafted in the cold air and drifted into the enveloping night. Petals of snow lodged like nests of white feathers in the bare-branched trees. What a night, the temperature falling, a storm threatening in the clouded sky. The frigid air sliced her lungs, shot up the mini under her coat.
Great. She hadn’t thought her wardrobe through, as usual.
René had better appreciate this. Listen to sense and slow things down.
She ran across the boulevard into the medieval quartier,
still an ungentrified slice of crumbling hôtel particuliers, narrow cobbled streets lined by Chinese wholesale luggage and jewelry shops. Red paper lanterns hanging from storefronts shuddered in the wind. From a half-open door she heard the pebble-like shuffling of mah-jongg tiles. This multi-block warren comprised the oldest and smallest of the four Chinatowns in Paris.
Few knew it existed.
She reached Chez Chun, the oldest or second-oldest building in Paris, depending on whom you talked to, sagging and timbered beside a darkened hair salon.
Inside Chez Chun a blast of garlic, chilis, and cloying Chinese pop music greeted her. The resto, an L-shaped affair, held ten or so filled tables. Roast ducks dangled behind the takeout counter. Not exactly an intimate dining spot.
René cornered her at the door. “Took you long enough,
Aimée.” René, a dwarf, was always a natty dresser. Tonight he wore a new silk tie and a velvet-collared wool overcoat tailored to his four-foot height.
“Work, René,” she said. “I’m still running programs.”
He raised his hand. “Routine. We’re good till Monday.”
She’d never seen him like this. For once work took second place.
“Yet look who came out in the cold,” she said, wiping the snow from her collar. “Why so nervous?”
“Use your famous Friant charm,” she said under her breath.
She pulled the gift from her coat pocket. “But why rush this,
René reached for the box, a small smile playing on his lips.
“Time to listen to my heart, Aimée.”
At the table, Meizi, her black ponytail bobbing, smiled at them. A warm smile that reached her eyes. “René said you’d be joining us. We ordered, I hope you don’t mind.” Petite, not much taller than René, she wore jeans and a green sweater as she stood ladling abalone soup into small bowls. “Love your coat, Aimée. Meet my parents.”
“Bonsoir,” Aimée said politely.
The unsmiling Monsieur and Madame Wu stared at her.
“My parents speak Wenzhou dialect,” said Meizi with an apologetic shrug. “I’ll translate.”
Aimée grinned, determined to thaw the atmosphere. Her black-stockinged thigh caught on the plastic-covered seat.
Under the disapproving stare of Madame Wu, she remembered
René’s complaints about how Meizi’s parents insisted on chaperoning their dates.
René set the present on the table beside the steaming soup.
“Happy birthday, Meizi.”
Aimée tried not to cringe. Even if it was only earrings, it was too soon. René was nuts, or crazy in love.
Madame Wu turned and spoke to her husband. Aimée heard her sharp intonation, and could imagine what was being said.
But Meizi’s face lit up in happiness as she untied the bow and opened the jewelry box. To Aimée’s surprise, it was a ring.
A pearl ring, luminous and simple. “How thoughtful, René,”
Meizi gasped. “I lost my other ring at the dojo.”
He winked. “I hope the next one will sparkle more.”
Madame Wu pulled the reading glasses down from her short, very black hair—dyed, Aimée could see—and shook her head. Round-faced Monsieur Wu, who was much older, averted his gaze.
Were they criticizing René’s gift or objecting to the relationship?
Perhaps they didn’t want their daughter involved with a dwarf? Despite her own reservations, Aimée felt a pang for René.
“Lovely, non?” Aimée said, trying to ease the almost palpable tension.
“Try it on, Meizi,” René urged.
Aimée noticed the look René and Meizi shared. Lost in each other. She nudged René. He ignored her.
Madame Wu spoke sharply, and Meizi translated. “My parents say you’re too kind, René.”
Aimée doubted that. Meizi slipped the ring on her fourth finger. “Parfait.” Aimée noticed the bitten nails, the worn calluses on Meizi’s fingertips. Meizi set the ring back in the box and passed out the steaming soup bowls. A large serving for René.
Meizi’s phone vibrated on the table. She glanced at the number and pushed her chair back. “I’ll be right back.”
René’s hand paused on his soupspoon. “Can’t you talk later,
“Won’t take a moment,” she said. As Meizi went to the door, Aimée noticed her backward glance, her beetled brow,
before she stepped outside.
The Wus, not ones for conversation, tucked into the soup.
Poor René. Aimée imagined the dinners he’d shared with the humorless Madame and Monsieur Wu. Had she read Meizi, a dutiful daughter, all wrong? A young waitress cleared their bowls, leaving Meizi’s, and brought a platter of fragrant roasted duck with shaved scallions. At least five more minutes passed.
“Where’s Meizi?” René asked, holding off from serving himself.
“Meizi, oui.” Madame Wu nodded, her chopsticks working at morsels of duck.
Aimée wished Meizi hadn’t left them in this awkward situation.
She shot René a look. He flipped his phone open, hit
Meizi’s number on his speed dial.
A stooped older woman wearing a stained apron entered the resto. Madame Wu exchanged an uneasy look with Monsieur
Wu as the old woman made her way to their table.
“Who’s this, another relative?” Aimée asked.
“The busybody who sells tofu and groceries next to her uncle’s place.” René frowned. “Meizi’s not answering her phone.”
Suddenly, the old woman shouted in Chinese. Madame Wu dropped her glasses on the table.
The old woman continued, bellowing, frantic. Loud murmurs and the clattering of chopsticks filled the resto. Surprised,
Aimée saw diners throw money on their tables, heard chairs screeching back in haste over the linoleum. As if at some mysterious signal, people reached for their coats and fled in a mass exodus.
Madame and Monsieur Wu stood in unison. Without a word they left the table and were out the door of the resto
without their coats. Not only rude, but unnerving.
The ring in the red velvet box sat by the teapot, forgotten.
Like Meizi’s coat on the back of her chair.
“But what’s happening?” René said, bewilderment on his face.
Aimée rubbed her sleeve on the fogged-up window to see outside. A red glow reflected in the ice veining the cobble cracks. Firemen, an ambulance, the police?
The young waitress by the door turned down the pop music.
“What’s the matter?” Aimée asked her.
“Trouble as in a robbery?” Jewelry stores abounded in the quartier, which had once been the diamond-cutting district.
“The old lady said murder.”
“Murder? But who?”
The waitress shrugged. Her fingers worried a tattered menu.
“Behind the luggage shop.”
Aimée sat up. “The luggage shop around the corner?”
The waitress nodded.
Meizi’s parents’ shop. A terrible feeling hit her. Meizi?
René had pulled on his coat and was already halfway to the door. Aimée scooped the jewelry box into her pocket, left a wad of francs on the table, and took off behind him.
• • •
Filled with dread, Aimée hurried down the street,
following René past the dimly lit Le Tango, a dance club emitting a reverberating drumbeat. No one stood outside. It was too cold for the usual drunken brawls. A horn blared streets away.
A flash of red disappeared around the corner. Madame Wu.
Aimée glimpsed a few Chinese people crowding the short walkway behind the luggage shop. The dark walkway between the buildings was crowded with garbage bins, wood palettes,
old cart wheels, the view ending in a dim red lantern shining on back stairs. Not a hundred yards from the resto. Her shoulders tightened.
“Meizi lives here above the shop.” René panted, his breath frosting in the cold. The windows he pointed to were dark.
Where were the Wus?
Aimée fought a rising panic, picking her way through Chinese people of all ages, mumbling and scraping their feet on the ice.
“Has someone been . . . ?” Aimée’s question was interrupted by a woman’s piercing scream. People jostled her shoulder as they ran away, their footsteps thudding on the snow. Shivering in the cold and full of misgivings, Aimée crossed the now deserted walkway.
Not Meizi, non . . . don’t let it be Meizi.
A rat, fat and brown, its tail the length of its long, wet,
furred body, scurried down the steps over the new-fallen snow.
It left a trail of red in its wake.
At the foot of the crumbling stone stairs by Meizi’s door, a man’s snow-dusted trouser-clad leg sprawled from a wooden palette. She gasped. Bits of gnawed, bloody flesh, orange peels,
and black wool threads trailed in the snow. Good God. Her stomach lurched. The rat.
Aimée couldn’t peel her horrified gaze from the corpse,
which was half wrapped in clear plastic, the kind used to secure merchandise to palettes. The man’s matted red hair, prominent nose, and cheekbones all melded, smooth and tight, under the clear plastic. Her gaze traveled to his wide, terrified eyes, then to his mouth, frozen open in a snowflake-dusted scream.
She stumbled and caught herself on the ice-glazed wall.
Who was he? He hadn’t been here long, judging by the light coating of snow. Where was Meizi?
“Mon Dieu,” René said, stepping back. He took a few steps and pounded on Meizi’s back door.
Aimée gathered up her long leopard-print coat and stepped with care around the dirtied snow, avoiding the overturned garbage bin’s contents.
Her insides churned. She shouldn’t have looked at the eyes.
A pair of black-framed glasses lay in the snow beside his gnawed calf. Crinkled papers, a half-open wallet. Using a dirty plastic bag to cover her hands, she picked the wallet up. No cash or credit cards. Cleaned out.
“Come on, Aimée,” René said. “The flics will handle this.
We have to find Meizi.”
Wedged deep in the wallet’s fold she found a creased Conservatoire des Arts et Métiers library card with an address and the name Pascal Samour. The photo showed a younger version of the pale face in plastic before her.
She turned the card over.
“Put that down, Aimée,” René said.
Stuck to the other side of the library card by gummy adhesive was a smudged photo of a Chinese girl with a glossy ponytail.
Meizi. “But look, René.”
He gasped, and his face fell. He stepped back, shaking his head. “I don’t understand.”
She caught her breath. “He knew Meizi, René. What if she . . .”
“You think she’s involved?” he sputtered. “Impossible.”
He punched numbers on his cell phone. “She’s still not answering. She’s in trouble.”
At that moment, wide flashlight beams blinded Aimée. She stumbled, dropped the wallet. Static and voices barked from a walkie-talkie: “First responders, truck thirteen. Alert medical backup we’re in the walkway.”
“Someone reported this incident,” the pompier medic shouted, his blue anorak crunching with snow. “Was that you?”
Aimée shook her head.
His colleague brushed past her with his resuscitator equipment.
He pulled on latex gloves, took out clippers and snipped the plastic away, revealing that the man’s wrists were bound behind him. The medic felt the man’s carotid artery. A formality.
He shook his head.
A shout erupted. A bedraggled figure came down a side staircase shaking his fist. He wore a matted fur coat, a sleep mask on his forehead, and orange slippers. “I’m trying to sleep.”
Aimée hadn’t noticed the crumbling stairs, the brickedup windows. Or the Permis de Demolir sign on the building.
“How many times have we told you to stay in the shelter,
Clodo?” said the second medic.
“They took my wine,” the homeless man said in a rasping voice.
She wondered why the rats hadn’t chewed him, too.“Did you hear anything? Or see this man attacked, Clodo?”
“Every night I hear the angels sing. Then the devils come.
Like you.” A loud burp.
“Clochards.” The medic shrugged. “Guess this is one for the
flics.” His partner packed away the resuscitator.
“You’re going to leave him like that?” René shivered beside her in the footprinted snow. Aimée scanned the ground, but the wallet with Meizi’s picture had disappeared.