The cobbled streets of Montparnasse might have been boho-chic in the 1920s, when artists, writers, and their muses drank absinthe and danced on cafe tables. But to Parisian private investigator Aimée Leduc, these streets hold darker secrets. When an old Russian man named Yuri hires Aimée to protect a priceless painting that just might be a Modigliani, she learns how deadly art theft can be. Yuri is found tortured to death in his atelier, and the painting is missing. Every time Aimée thinks she's found a new witness, the body count rises. What exactly is so special about this painting that so many people are willing to kill—and die—for it?
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Monday, Late February 1998, Paris, 5:58 p.m.
Aimée Leduc bit her lip as she scanned the indigo dusk, the shoppers teeming along rain-slicked Boulevard du Montparnasse. Daffodil scents drifted from the corner flower shop. Her kohl-rimmed eyes zeroed in on the man hunched at the window table in the café. Definitely the one.
Gathering her courage, she entered the smoke-filled café and sat down across from him. She crossed her legs, noting the stubble on his chin and the half-filled glass of limonade.
He sized up her mini and three-inch leopard-print heels. “Going to make me happy?” he asked. “They said you’re good.”
“No one’s complained.” She unclipped the thumb drive from her hoop earring and slid it across the table to him. “Insert this in your USB port to download the file,” she said, combing her red wig forward with her fingers. “Et voilà.”
“You copied the entire court file to that?” The thick eyebrows rose above his sallow face.
“Cutting-edge technology not even patented yet,” she said with more confidence than she felt. She wished her knees would stop shaking under the table.
“How do you do it?”
“Computer security’s my business,” she said, glancing at her Tintin watch. This was taking too long.
“We’ll just see to make sure, non?” He pulled a laptop from his bag under the table, inserted the thumb drive. More tech savvy than he’d let on. Thank God she’d prepared for that.
“Satisfied?” She fluffed her red wig.
A grin erupted on his face. “The Cour d’Assize witness list with backgrounds, addresses, and schedule. Nice work.” He’d lowered his voice. “Perfect to nique les flics.” Screw the cops.
She grinned. Glanced at the time. “Don’t you have something for me?”
Under the table he slipped an envelope, sticky with lemonade residue, into her hands. In her lap she counted the crisp fresh bills.
“Where’s the rest?” Perspiration dampened the small of her back. “You trying to cheat me?”
“That’s what we agreed,” he said, slipping another envelope under the table. Winked.
Thought he was a player.
“Count again,” he said.
She did. “No tip? Service compris?”
“Let’s do business again, Mademoiselle. You live up to your reputation. Glad I outsourced this.” He smiled again. “I couldn’t be more pleased.”
She smiled back. “Neither could Commissaire Morbier.”
His shoulders stiffened. “Wait a minute. What . . .?”
“Would you like to meet my godfather?” She gestured to the older man sitting at the next table. Salt-and-pepper hair, basset-hound eyes, corduroy jacket with elbow patches.
“Godfather?” he said, puzzled.
“Did you get that on tape, Morbier?”
“On camera too. Oh, we got it all,” Morbier said. Two undercover flics at the zinc counter approached with handcuffs. Another turned from a table with a laptop, took the thumb drive and inserted it.
The man gave a short laugh and pulled a cell phone from his pocket. “Zut, that’s entrapment plain and simple. Never fly in court, fools. My lawyer will confirm . . .”
“Entrapment’s illegal, but a sting’s right up our alley, according to the Ministry’s legal advisor.” Morbier jerked his thumb toward a middle-aged man at a neighboring table, who raised his glass of grenadine at them. “Don’t worry, I had the boys at the Ministry of the Interior clear the operation technicalities, just to err on the safe side. Makes your illegal soliciting and paying for and reading confidential judicial documents airtight in court. ”
“Lying slut,” the man said, glaring at Aimée. “But you’re not a flic.”
She nodded. “Just another pretty face.”
“To think I trusted you.”
“Never trust a redhead,” she said, watching him be led away. Aimée removed the red wig, scratched her head, and slipped off her heels.
“Not bad, Leduc.” Morbier struck a match and lit a cigarette. The tang of his non-filtered Gauloise tickled her nose.
“That entrapment business, you’re sure?” She leaned forward to whisper. “I won’t get nailed somehow? Alors, Morbier, with such short notice . . .”
“Quick and dirty, Leduc. Your specialty, non? I needed an outsider.”
“Why?” What hadn’t he told her in his last-minute plea for help?
“But I told you.” A shrug. “He broke my last officer’s knees.”
She controlled a shudder. “You forgot to tell me that part.”
He shrugged. Not even a thank-you. And still no apology for what had happened last month, the lies he’d told about the past, her parents. A hen would grow teeth before he apologized. But she’d realized it was time to accept that he’d protected her in his own clumsy way. And make up for her outburst—she’d thrown caviar in his face at the four-star resto.
“So we’re good, Leduc?” The lines crinkled at the edge of his eyes, the bags under them more pronounced. His jowls sagged.
She blinked. Coming from Morbier, that rated as an apology.
She pulled on her red high-tops, laced them up. Scratched her head again.
“Au contraire.” She stood, slipped the wig and heels in her bag, buttoned the jean jacket over her vintage black Chanel. “Now you owe me, Morbier.”
Monday, 7:30 p.m.
In the quartier below Montparnasse, the Serb shivered in his denim jacket, huddled in the damp doorway, watching Yuri Volodya close and lock his atelier door. Why do they lock the doors and leave the windows open? Just foolish.
Yuri Volodya walked across the wet cobbles and disappeared up the dark lane. The old man kept right on schedule—he’d be out for the evening. Now for this simple snatch-and-grab job. The Serb noted a few passersby taking the narrow thread of a street—the shortcut to the boulevard—the general quiet and cars parked for the night. Perfect.
He peered over the cracked stone wall of the back of the old man’s place—part atelier, part living space. A small garden wreathed in shadows, the windows dark. He heaved himself up and over.
The garden was redolent with rosemary. The Serb waited a few seconds, moved without making a sound on his padded soles to the side window. He slid it fully open and slipped in. He reached into his pocket and checked the syringe filled with the tranquilizer, just in case the old man came back. All capped tight.
“Don’t kill him,” they had said. Would have been easier.
A couple of lamps were lit, so the Serb didn’t need his flashlight. The atelier was small enough to search quickly. He looked behind the worktable and under it, too—but nyet—no one would store a painting flat.
He had to think . . . What was wrong here? His eyes scanned the room and he noticed some fresh scuffing in front of the armoire, as if it had been moved back and forth—more than once, too.
He moved the armoire aside to find a locked door. He searched the armoire drawers for a key, and when he found it, he put it into the lock.
Then he heard a switch click, and the room plunged into darkness. The Serb sensed someone behind him. He flung out an arm, hoping to strike before being struck, but he tripped instead. Someone kicked him in the stomach. He felt gut-wrenching pain and the hypodermic needle rolled in his pocket.
His attacker went down on his knees and roped him around his neck, but the Serb fought him off. That’s when he felt the jab in his rear. The liquid ran cold into his muscle, and he felt the freeze go up his body. He went limp.
His attacker let him go, thinking his job was done. A small penlight went on and the key turned in the lock. The wall cabinet opened to reveal . . . nothing. The painting was gone.
The Serb’s attacker turned on his heel and walked out. The Serb, disturbed by the strange buzzing in his ears, knew he had to leave too. The simple snatch-and-grab complicated by a rival intruder, and then no painting. He stood, unsteady, and realized it was much harder to breathe. He needed to go outside into the fresh air . . .
He managed to unlock the door and stumble onto the sidewalk before he realized he couldn’t catch his breath at all. A rock-like weight pressed into his chest. Gasping, he reached out between the parked cars. His sleeve caught on something and the world went black.
Monday, 8 p.m.
In the overheated commissariat, Aimée signed her police statement. She took the last sip of Morbier’s burgundy, then dabbed Chanel No. 5 on her pulse points and slipped the flacon into her bag.
“You’ll need to testify against him, Leduc,” said Morbier from behind his desk. “So the rat won’t get up the drainpipe again.”
“Not part of our deal, Morbier.” She shook her head.
He waved his age-spotted hand. “Legally you’re covered. Sanctioned from the top. It’s all in my report.”
“Against the Corsican mafia?” She snapped her bag shut. “My identity becomes public knowledge and then a thug appears on my doorway. I disappear. Didn’t you tell me his history of intimidating witnesses?”
“Your testimony takes place in closed judges’ chambers. No leaks. No media.” Morbier stabbed out a Gauloise in the overflowing ashtray. “For three years the rat’s boss has evaded every conviction. Now the Corsican’s going down and I need you as a witness.”
She figured it linked to the corruption investigation that had almost cost him his career.
“More like someone you can trust,” she said. And someone he could dupe into assisting him. It always went like this with Morbier. As if she didn’t have enough on her plate right now after losing her business partner, René, to Silicon Valley.
The light of the desk lamp on Morbier’s sagging jowls illuminated how he’d aged. Despite her annoyance with him, her heart wrenched a little.
“Then you double owe me, Morbier.” She kissed him on both cheeks, then grabbed her jean jacket from the rack. She nodded to an officer she recognized from his undercover unit before she noticed Saj de Rosnay, the cash-poor aristocrat and Leduc Detective’s part-time hacker, standing at reception.
“You need bail, Aimée?” Saj worried the sandalwood beads around his neck.
“Non, just a ride, Saj. And I borrowed your thumb drive—owe you a new one. We’ve got work to do tonight. Feel like takeout?”
“But I thought you’d been arrested.” He sniffed. “Drinking?” His jaw dropped. “What the hell have you been doing?”
“Morbier and I made up, but I had to play his game.”
“Didn’t look like poker to me.” His eyebrow rose.
“He needed last-minute help with a sting. Long story.”
Outside on the dark, narrow street, the locked exit of the Catacombs glowed under a street lamp. The car was parked in front of an old forge, horseshoes visible high on the façade. Saj unlocked the door for her. He took the wheel of René’s beloved vintage Citroën DS, a classic entrusted to Saj temporarily until René had a chance to settle in San Francisco. Saj readjusted the custom seat controls, which were usually fitted for René’s short legs. A pang went through her.
“You know, that could have gone very badly,” Saj told her. “You took my technology without asking—what if I had had important client files on that drive? Warn me next time, Aimée, when you’re putting the business at risk.”
Her cheeks reddened as the Citroën’s heated leather seat began to warm her derrière. “Desolée, Saj, I didn’t think—”
“Comme toujours,” Saj interrupted, exasperation in his tone. “Isn’t it time you started thinking of the consequences before you jump into these dangerous schemes?”
Guilt assailed her. This was worse than her usual tactlessness—she’d been plain stupid. She needed Saj more than ever right now; she couldn’t afford to lose him. Or stress him out. “Saj, I only had two hours to put this together. But you’re right,” she said, trying to sound contrite.
“What about my thumb drive prototypes? I’m supposed to test them.”
“I only borrowed one.” She unclipped her hoop earrings, wondering how to make it up to him. “La police kept it in evidence. You’ll get it back with the court files erased and good as new.”
A crow cawed from outside the car window. There it was, overlooking the church, perched on the charcuterie’s façade. She caught its beady black-eyed stare. Bad luck, her grand-mère would say.
“I won’t hold my breath,” Saj said, shifting into first.
“Consider the thumb drive a rental. Morbier needs me to testify.” She cringed at the thought. She hated the cold marble-floored tribunal, the smell of fear and authority.
Saj didn’t reply, just nudged the Citroën out into the street. Aimée ran her fingers through her blond-streaked shag cut hair, wishing she hadn’t run out of mousse. An evening of reports stretched ahead. They were barely coping with René’s workload.
“It’s a good time for you to start being honest with me about your other side jobs.” A thick envelope landed in her lap. The second tonight.
“What’s this?” she asked, surprised.
“You tell me,” Saj said.
Inside the envelope she found a bundle of worn franc notes and a card embossed with Yuri Volodya, 14 Villa d’Alésia and a phone number. On the back: Accept this retainer. Contact me. Urgent.
She had no idea who this Yuri Volodya was. “Out of the blue, this man gives you . . . when?”
“Une petite seconde, did you speak with him?”
Saj said, “I told him to call you.”
She’d turned her cell phone ringer off. Now she checked for messages. The same number had called twice but left no message.
“Some scam?” Another five thousand francs tonight. “We’re busy. How could you accept this without an explanation?”
“I didn’t—he mentioned being a family friend. Protecting his painting. Said you’d understand.”
“Understand?” She shook her head. “What did he mean, family friend? You think an old colleague of my father’s?”
“Your mother, he said.”
For a moment everything shifted; she felt the oxygen being sucked from the car. Her pulse thudded. Her American mother, who was on the world security watch list? “How did he know my mother?”
Saj downshifted. “So he’s trouble, non?”
She hit the number. No answer. “What else did he say?”
“That’s all.” Saj shrugged. “Even if his money’s good, this smells bad. Alors, Aimée, we need to keep on track. We need to spend our time figuring out how to juggle all René’s projects and keep our existing clients happy. We don’t have time for whatever this is.”
Anxious, she tried the man’s number again. She needed to know more. A friend of her mother’s? But no answer.
“We will sort it all out, Saj. But turn around. Let’s meet this Monsieur Volodya.”
“Didn’t you say takeout?” Saj said.
The last thing Aimée was in the mood for was food. But she needed to do something for Saj. She also needed to talk to this man Yuri, and return his money. Her nerves jangled.
“Yes, takeout,” she said. “My treat.”
Saj downshifted off the boulevard into the honeycomb of tiny lanes of small houses, ateliers, and old warehouses. A long-time resident, he knew the best routes to take at this time of night. The quartier was a less well-heeled bourgeois-bohemian version of adjoining Montparnasse, complete with mounting rents. Saj complained that the former ateliers of famous Surrealists like Picasso now belonged to bohemian-chic residents whose trust funds couldn’t quite afford the 6th arrondissement.
Twenty minutes later the couscous végétarien takeout sat on the backseat, the turmeric and mint smells reminding Aimée she’d forgotten dinner. But she had no appetite. Yuri Volodya still didn’t answer his phone. Was it worth going to the address on the card? Part of her wanted Saj to drop her off at the Métro so she could head home and collapse in her bed. The other part knew she wouldn’t be able to rest until she discovered why he’d sent this, and what his connection was to her mother.
The Citroën bumped over the cobbles. She wished Saj would slow down. He unclipped his seat belt, reached in the backseat for his madras cloth bag. Popped some pills from a pill case.
“What’s wrong? Your chakra’s misaligned again?”
“Try some.” He dropped a fistful of brown pellets into her hand. “Herbal stress busters. Works every time, remember?”
“Bien sûr,” she said, chewing her lip. His fungus-scented pellets reminded her of rabbit droppings. “We’ll make it work without René,” she added. “We should think of his amazing job offer. This opportunity for him.”
Inside she thought only of the hole he’d leave. Selfish, Aimée, as usual.
“René didn’t trust me, or the business, Saj. Avec raison,” she said, hating to admit it. She couldn’t compete with René’s job offer—six figures, stock options, and the title of CTO, chief technology officer.
“Maybe René doesn’t trust himself right now,” Saj said, pensive. Apart from the purring motor, quiet filled the car. He was right; René had moped around, couldn’t concentrate after his broken heart.
“We should do some more asana breathing sessions,” Saj went on. “It will exand your awareness and you’ll feel less stressed.”
Not this again. She almost threw the pellets at him.
“Make a right here, Saj.” She hoped they hadn’t made a wasted trip.
He turned into Villa d’Alésia, a tree-lined lane lit by old-fashioned lampposts. Suddenly, a white van lurched in front of them. Saj honked the horn and downshifted. The van shot ahead, its hanging muffler scraping the cobbles, and turned out of sight.
Aimée scanned the house numbers for number fourteen. From the corner of her eye she caught a figure flashing in front of the Citroën’s grill. A man’s blue jean jacket shone in the headlights’ yellow beam.
“Look out, Saj!” she shouted.
Horrified, her right arm shot out against the dashboard, while out of instinct she threw her other arm protectively across Saj’s chest.
Saj punched the brakes. Squeals and then a horrible thump as the man hit the windshield. For a second the man’s pale face pressed against the glass, his half-lidded eyes vacant, his palms splayed.
The man crumpled off the side of the car as Saj veered left. Too late. The Citroën jolted, hitting an old parked Mercedes. The metal screeched as it accordioned; the car shuddered. Cold air tinged by burning rubber poured over her face.
The impact set off the alarms of parked cars, a shrill honking cacophony. A hiss of steam escaped the Citroën’s crushed radiator.
Her bag had fallen from the dashboard—mascara, keys, and encryption manuals spilling on the floor. Saj’s body hung over the steering wheel. Good God, he’d taken off his seat belt.
“Saj, can you hear me?”
He stirred, rubbed his head.
“The mec came out of nowhere,” he said. And before she could struggle out of her seat belt, Saj pushed open the dented door. He staggered in shock, his pale dreadlocks hanging in the yellow slants of the headlights. “Mon Dieu, I killed him.”