Parisian private investigator Aimée Leduc is about to go onstage to deliver the keynote address at a tech conference that is sure to secure Leduc Detective some much-needed business contracts when she gets an emergency phone call from her daughter’s playgroup: Aimée’s own mother, who was supposed to pick Chloe up, never showed. Abandoning her hard-won speaking gig, Aimée rushes to get Chloe, annoyed that her mother has let her down yet again.
But as Aimée and Chloe are leaving the playground, Aimée witnesses the body of a homeless woman being wheeled away from the neighboring convent, where nuns run a soup kitchen. The last person anyone saw the dead woman talking to was Aimée’s mother, who has vanished. Trying to figure out what happened to Sydney Leduc, Aimée tracks down the dead woman’s possessions, which include a huge amount of cash. What did Sydney stumble into? Is she in trouble?
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Paris • Late October 1999 • Monday, Midafternoon
The young woman stumbled on the cobblestones in her worn shoes, fist in her pocket, clutching the steak knife she’d nicked from the café. She’d felt eyes watching—fear had charged up her back, impossible to ignore. Her gut had screamed at her to get out of there.
Why hadn’t her contact showed?
A car engine revved up, gears scraping. She glanced back and saw a black Renault slide onto Boulevard de Picpus. Her heart pounded.
Walk faster. Keep going. Past the boule players and around the bandstand. The sky was oyster grey. She could make it to the Métro station at Picpus.
At École Saint Michel, parents and small children waiting for school dismissal clogged her path until they took in her homeless appearance, which made them scatter. The swollen clouds opened in a downpour.
She heard the car’s clutch grind.
She broke into a run, lungs heaving, shoelaces flying. Turned the corner onto Avenue de Saint-Mandé. She could hear the car gaining on her. Any moment it could jump the median, ram her against the stone wall. Dripping wet, she sprinted toward the Métro steps ahead of her. She could make it. Get the documents to the only person she trusted and prevent a disaster.
A car door slammed. Footsteps slapped the wet pavement behind her. What if she got stuck on a platform—caught in the Métro? She reconsidered.
The double-grilled gate to a nearby building’s courtyard was standing open as a car pulled out. In the pelting rain, she ducked inside, ran through the courtyard, scrambling past the parked cars and through an open portion in the fence to the empty adjoining lot, which was being paved. Its old gate opened onto a convent’s grounds.
She skidded on the wet grass, perspiring in her oversized jacket, and ran along the stone wall. Past the cemetery, through the brown wood door to the tree-lined convent grounds. No one would find her there, at the Petites Soeurs des Pauvres homeless shelter. Through the grey haze of rain and the branches of the fig trees, she could make out the white habit of the intake nun.
And then she was caught from behind. She gripped the steak knife in her pocket and whirled around—she recognized the man. “Don’t touch me—”
“Running your mouth, salope?”
She struggled as he pushed her against the wall. Kicked at him desperately.
She tried to scream, but he covered her mouth with his hand. His sour breath in her face. She fought to aim the knife at him.
But he caught her fist in a grip like an iron vise and twisted, turning her own force against her. Trained reflexes, she thought—her last thought, as the steak knife plunged into her neck so deeply it hit the wall behind her. Blood pumped out of her carotid artery, staining the raindrops on the rhododendron blossoms. Her eyes glazed and the grey went black.
Paris • Late October 1999 • Monday, Midafternoon
Aimée Leduc smoothed down her little black Chanel dress in the dining room of le Train Bleu, the belle-epoque resto above the Gare de Lyon. In need of courage, she reached for a champagne flute of Kir Royal. All of a sudden, the faces around her blurred, and the room spun. She gripped the tablecloth, bunched it in her fists, and closed her eyes. Took a deep breath. Then another. The dizziness passed, quickly as it had come.
She could do this.
Determined, Aimée found her balance in her reheeled Louboutin ankle boots. Managed a wide smile and mounted the stage, heading toward the speaker’s podium, where the host was waiting to introduce her. This tech conference, whose attendees were select and mostly men, had invited her to give the keynote address. An honor and a challenge on her first week back at work after a concussion that had kept her on bed rest for a month. But she’d recovered, hadn’t she?
She eyed the players—the CEOs hungry for an edge in the world of la start-up. She had a mission: to network and pull in new clients for Leduc Detective’s computer security services. Already, she felt the sweet tingle of new contracts. She’d thought up a great hook for her speech and was braced for industrial flirting over apéros. All week she’d rehearsed her speech, the talking points, memorized each pause for emphasis.
Now she nodded as she was introduced. She caught the glare of her rival in the audience. Marc Fabre, the tech entrepreneur with a shaved head that glinted in the chandelier’s light—he’d tried to lock down this keynote for himself, she knew.
As she waited for the host to summon her to the podium, Aimée grew aware of a disturbance. She watched as a man rushed out to whisper in the host’s ear and shot Aimée a look before crossing the platform to her.
“Your phone’s off,” the man said.
Mais bien sûr, she’d muted it for the presentation.
“There’s an emergency—it’s your daughter’s playgroup. They’ve been trying to reach you, so they called the restaurant.”
Her heart dropped. “Has something happened to Chloé?”
“I don’t know. You need to pick up your daughter. Immediately.”
She felt a jolt of panic. “Was there an accident?”
“I don’t know. Apparently, your mother was nowhere to be found.”
Of all times. The playgroup was so far away, in Square Courteline—Sydney had insisted on it; Aimée had no idea why. But where was her mother? And who could she call to pick Chloé up? Her nanny, a university student, was in class; all her other go-tos were at work.
Whatever was going on, it had to be an emergency for them to have tracked her down at this conference.
She felt like a helpless child. She needed to maintain her composure. She tried not to let her feelings show—her fear and anger and the sinking in her stomach.
Marc Fabre stood and approached the podium, his face radiating concern. “Don’t worry, Aimée. I’ll pinch-hit for you.” Of course he would. He tried to mask the delight in his eyes. “I hope everything’s okay.”
With her mother? Never. What stunt was she pulling now?
With hurried excuses, Aimée grabbed her bag and the disk with the now-useless PowerPoint presentation she’d prepared. She scurried out of the restaurant, past the gilt arches and murals framed by pastry-like moldings. All those hours of work and rehearsal down the drain.
She tried her mother’s phone. No answer. Voice-mail box was full.
Sydney Leduc, Aimée’s American mother, a woman on Interpol’s most-wanted list, always had an excuse for disrupting Aimée’s life. But involving Chloé was another matter. Aimée was so angry she wanted to scream.
Her mother had enthused about this fancy playgroup, a mom and tot “art enrichment” experience. She’d insisted on signing Chloé up for it. And now she’d left her granddaughter alone with a bunch of strangers at a playgroup out in Bel-Air?
Worry creased Aimée’s brow as she ran down the stairs and across the lobby by the train platforms. Passengers clustered, the departure and arrival board clicked above her, and the odd pigeon cooed from the art nouveau metal pillars supporting the glass ceiling.
Thank God only one person stood ahead of her in the taxi line in front of the station. A first. She kept punching in her mother’s number. Again it went to a recorded message: “This mailbox is full.”
Sydney hadn’t even left Aimée a message. She flipped hurriedly through her Moleskine, looking for the number of the center that ran the playgroup. Hadn’t she written it down?
Rain pattered on the taxi’s windshield as it sped alongside the viaduc, the old train line. Its planted walkway, the Promenade Plantée, crowned the rose brick arches, inside each of which nestled an artisanal gallery of one of the quartier’s master craftsmen—a woodworker, a gilder, an upholsterer. If only the playgroup weren’t so far. Who came all the way out to Bel-Air in the twelfth arrondissement except to visit the zoo and Bois de Vincennes? Well, René, her business partner, did sometimes visit the computer shops around Montgallet.
Aimée searched her trench coat pocket for her Nicorette gum. Popped a piece in her mouth. She didn’t miss smoking. Not at all, hadn’t craved a cigarette once in the thirty-one days and ten hours since she’d quit. Again.
The playgroup’s main number went to voice mail, and she left a message. Her mind was racing.
Why had she trusted her mother? The woman had reappeared in her life out of the blue, as usual, with a determination to know her granddaughter. Sydney had taken advantage of Aimée’s condition—bedridden for a month while she waited for the blood clot from her concussion to dissolve—to shoehorn herself into Aimée and Chloé’s life. As if Sydney could forge some sort of relationship with Aimée after all these years. It had been a bumpy ride so far.
Could she say she even knew this woman? Her mother was a foreign presence with an American accent and all her secrets. All through her childhood, Aimée’d yearned for her mother, and now, as the proverb went, she realized she should’ve been careful what she wished for.
The taxi passed the commissariat, a modern behemoth whose architecture gave an incongruous nod to the past with its sculptured caryatids. Beyond were Haussmann buildings overlooking nonphotogenic rail lines. After the roundabout at Place Félix Eboué with the lion fountain Chloé loved, it was just another block to Boulevard de Picpus, which took the taxi through the quartier Bel-Air toward Square Courteline. Near the old bandstand and sandy boules pit, she spotted the playgroup’s shop front. The usual marmalade-striped cat sat in the blue-curtained window. The rain halted. Clouds broke and sunlight slanted down over the puddles, peacock hued from car oil. Drops glistened from the red café awning next door. Aimée overtipped the young taxi driver, comme toujours, for late-night taxi karma, and stepped onto the slick pavement.
Chloé, her almost toddler, pounded clay with her chubby fists. She beamed when she saw her mother, and Aimée’s heart warmed. That precious rosy-cheeked bundle was almost one year old.
“Bonjour, ma puce.” Aimée swooped Chloé up, clayey hands and all. Kissed her warm pink cheeks and inhaled her baby scent.
The teacher, in a clay-smeared smock, took in Aimée’s little black dress. Vuitton bag. Gave a strained smile. “We’re a parent participation program, mademoiselle. Children can’t be left here without an adult.”
“Excusez-moi. I just got the message, but it wasn’t clear . . . Did my mother have an accident?”
“Not here, certainement. Pouf, she was gone, just like that,” the teacher said. “We have rules. This is not a day care. C’est fini, mademoiselle.”
Great. Aimée’s mother had just gotten Chloé kicked out of playgroup.