Business is booming for Parisian private investigator Aimée Leduc. But she finds time to do a favor for her godfather, Commissaire Morbier, who asks her to drop by the gorgeous Passy home of his girlfriend, Xavierre d’Eslay, a haut bourgeois matron of Basque origin. Xavierre has been so busy with her daughter’s upcoming wedding that she has stopped taking Morbier’s calls, and he’s worried something serious is going on. When Aimée crashes the rehearsal dinner, Xavierre is discovered strangled in her own yard, and circumstantial evidence makes Morbier the prime suspect. To vindicate her godfather, Aimée must find the real killer. Her investigation leads her to police corruption, radical Basque terrorists, and a kidnapped Spanish princess.
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Monday Early Evening
The doorbells tinkled as Aimée Leduc stepped inside the cheese shop from the cold and inhaled the warm, pungent odors. A radio blared the evening news: “. . . evading seven roadblocks erected after the shootout in the Imprimerie Nationale documents heist. In other breaking news, a radical faction. . . .”
She shivered, nodding to pink-faced, rotund Victor, standing in his white apron behind the counter. Bombings, shoot-outs, she hated to think what else—and to make it worse, just before the holidays.
“World’s gone crazy.” Victor shook his head. “The usual?” He gestured to a runny rind on grape leaves standing on the marbletopped counter: “Or this?”
Aimée tasted the Brie dripping on the white waxed paper. “C’est parfait.”
She emerged from the shop into the evening mist and rounded the corner toward her office on rue du Louvre. The reflections of the furred yellow orbs of streetlights glowed on the wet pavement.
“About time, Leduc.” Morbier, her godfather and a police commissaire, his black wool coat beaded with moisture, paced before her building door. An unmarked Peugeot with a driver, engine thrumming, waited at the curb.
“More like five minutes early, Morbier.” The chill autumn wind cut a swathe through the street of nineteenth-century buildings. Passersby hurried along, bundled in overcoats.
A look she couldn’t read crossed his face. “We’ve got a situation in Lyon. I’m late. You’ve got the file, Leduc?”
Forget the apéritif she’d expected in the corner café! She brushed away her disappointment. So they would do the exchange in the cold, wet street. She handed Morbier a manila envelope containing the supposed ten-year-old letters and photo of her “brother” Julian. It was time to let the professionals handle the only copies she had, so she could find out once and for all if they were genuine. “A week for lab authentication, Morbier?”
In return, he showed her an engraved business card reading police paper forensics division head paul bert. “Bert’s the leading forgery expert. That’s all I know.”
She nodded; she couldn’t push it. He was doing her a favor. “Time for a quick espresso?” She pointed to the lit windows under the café’s awning, which was now whipping in the wind.
Morbier shook his head. Under the thick salt-and-pepper hair, his face appeared more lined in the streetlight; dark circles showed under his eyes. “You think life finally makes sense, then . . . alors,” he shrugged. “Pouff, it turns upside down.”
“What’s wrong, Morbier?” She wished they were inside the warm café with its fogged-up window instead of standing in the wind. A siren whined in the distance. “A case?”
“Can’t talk about it, Leduc.”
As usual. The streetlight revealed his cuffed corduroys, his mismatched socks, one brown, one black. Morbier was no fashion plate. He hadn’t made a move toward his car. Unlike him.
She sensed something else bothering him. His health? “Did you have that checkup like you promised?”
“Something’s going on with Xavierre,” he said. “I’m worried.”
Taken aback, Aimée fumbled for something to say. She remembered him with his arm around Xavierre, an attractive older woman with dark hair. Xavierre’s laughter, warm smile, and scent of gardenias came back to her.
“Worried over what?”
“She doesn’t answer her phone,” he said.
“Zut! I don’t either, half the time,” she said. “You’re reading too much into it.”
“I need to know what’s going on.”
She’d never seen him like this, like a lovelorn shaggy dog. It was not often that he shared his personal feelings.
“Her daughter’s getting married soon, non?” Aimée rubbed her hands, wishing she’d worn gloves. “You told me yourself last week. She’s busy.” A cloud of diesel exhaust erupted from the Number 74 bus as it paused to board passengers.
“Xavierre’s holding back,” he said. “Something feels wrong, Leduc. When my gut talks, I listen.”
“Like what? You’re thinking she’s in danger?”
“She’s fond of you,” Morbier said. “Help me out, eh?”
He hadn’t answered her question. “But what can I do?”
He pulled a police notepad from his coat pocket and wrote down an address. “Do me a favor. Her daughter’s wedding rehearsal party’s tonight. Go there and talk to Xavierre. She’ll open up to you. If I hadn’t gotten called away to this investigation—”
“Me?” Aimée interrupted.
“How many times have I helped you, Leduc?” he said. “Better get going, the party’s started.”
Why did she always forget that Morbier’s favors had a price?
He pointed to the leather catsuit under her raincoat. “I’d suggest you change into a little black dress, too.”
“You dispensing fashion advice, Morbier?”
But he merely said, “Can I count on you?”
She nodded. And then he climbed in the waiting Peugeot. A moment later it turned and its red taillights disappeared up rue du Louvre. Some kettle of fish, she figured, if they had to summon Morbier to Lyon.
She hit the numbers on the digicode keypad; the door buzzed open. She was tired out: it had been her first day back at work after a month’s recovery from the explosion that had laid her low on her last case. Her shoulders ached; she had a report to file. And now this. But she couldn’t ignore the urgency in Morbier’s voice.
On the third floor, she unlocked Leduc Detective’s frosted glass door. Instead of the dark office she expected, she caught the sweet smell of juniper logs and welcome warmth emanating from glowing embers in the small marble fireplace. “What are you doing still here, René?”
René Friant, her partner, a dwarf, swiveled his orthopedic chair, his short fingers pausing on the laptop keyboard. “Catching up,” he said. “How did today’s surveillance go?”
He was worried about their computer security contracts, as usual.
“I think you’ll like this.” She slotted the VCR tape into the player. Hit play.
René’s large green eyes scanned the screen. With an absent gesture, he brushed at the crease in his charcoal suit pants, which were tailored to his four-foot height.
“Good work.” René grinned.
She’d had a tête-à-tête with the VP of operations and had planted the video camera in his office, along with a data sniffer on his office computer’s input cable. Now they could monitor his less-than-transparent budget transactions remotely. Their client, the CEO, needed proof of embezzlement.
“So the VP took the bait?”
“Like a big hungry fish, René.” She crinkled her nose in distaste.
“The things I do for computer security!”
René shrugged. “And for a fat check, too. We should be able to document the VP’s sticky fingers in the corporate cookie jar and wrap up our surveillance by Friday, write our report, et voilà.”
He was excited, as always, on a new project. She hadn’t realized how much she’d missed work while spending a month on her back. She had been wounded and René hospitalized after being shot. But René had recuperated at a seaweed Thallasotherapy, a cure courtesy of national health insurance. Noticing his glowing complexion, she wished she’d done that too, instead of attempting to master the new encryption manual while she recovered.
“I need to run an errand for Morbier.” She glanced at the time. “Back in an hour. Then I’ll lock up.”
“Leaving now? You just got here.”
“Eh? Another bad boy? Don’t you learn—”
Was that anger in his voice? She ignored it.
“Not me. Morbier’s worried about Xavierre, wants me to talk to her,” she said. “It’s complicated.”
“You’re serious?” he said. “We’ve got an account to update. And there’s this case.”
“Do you think I don’t know that?” she said. The last thing she wanted was to go back out into the cold. “But Morbier called in a favor.”
She took the half-empty Orangina off her desk, tore off a piece of baguette from inside her bag, unwrapped the white waxed paper, and scooped up a runny wedge of Brie. Dinner.
“Help yourself, René.” She went behind the screen and unzipped the black leather catsuit, peeling the buttery leather from her thighs. She found her little black dress with the scooped neck, vintage Chanel, in the armoire and hooked the last snap under her arm. She clicked open her LeClerc compact and applied a few upstrokes of mascara.
“Armed in Chanel.” René shook his head. “You look tired.”
So obvious? She noticed the circles under her eyes and dabbed on concealer, ran her rouge noir nails—for once newly lacquered—through her shag-cut hair. She had blond highlights this week, at her coiffeuse’s suggestion. She checked the address on the map in her Paris plan. “40 rue Raynouard, that’s in the 16th arrondissement.”
“Très chic,” René said. “Look, it’s your first day back; let me give you a ride.”
“But it’s out of your way,” she said. “I’ll grab a taxi.”
“Morbier’s my friend too, Aimée,” he said, sounding hurt.
“That’s not the issue, René.”
His health was. He was still using a cane. The case she’d dragged him into last month had resulted in his injuries; she didn’t want that to happen again. “No reason for you to get involved.”
“But I already am.” He shut down his laptop. “My car’s out front.”
* * *
To their left , the arms of the Seine wrapped the Île de la Cité in a turgid gel-like embrace. Arcs of light from the goldcrowned Pont Alexandre III glittered on René’s Citroën DS windshield as he shifted into third gear. The dark masses of trees lining the quai whizzed by, blurring into a row of shadows.
Concern dogged her as she recalled the tense edge in Morbier’s voice, the tremble in his hand. She doubted he’d had that checkup. She pulled her anthracite-gray faux fur tighter. The heated leather seats toasted her thighs.
It was late, she was tired, and part of her wanted to get this over with. The other part wondered what Morbier’s gut had told him.
“Morbier thinks she’s seeing another man, n’est-ce pas?” René turned onto a wide avenue with tall limestone Haussmann buildings like silent sentinels to the quartier, which was bordered by the Seine and the Bois de Boulogne.
“I don’t know,” she said.
“But that’s a special thing, eh,” René said. “Older men offer the devotion of a lifetime, as Oscar Wilde said.”
More to it than that, she thought as they drove past closed upscale boutiques. Past Franck et Fils, the darkened department store where her father had bought her Catholic school uniform, and the shuttered café opposite where they’d had hot chocolate, something she longed for on a night like this.
René turned onto a street canopied by trees. The next narrowed into a high-walled lane; no doubt it had been a cow path in the last century. It still amazed her how these enclaves existed, tucked away, the remnants of another world: the old villages of Auteuil and Passy, where once Roman vineyards had dotted the hills, thermal springs—celebrated for curative properties—had beckoned seventeenth-century Parisians, and where Balzac, penniless and in debt, had written while hiding from his creditors.
René turned the corner and pulled over, and the Citroën shuddered to a halt. She stepped out of the car into a biting wind under a sky pocked with stars. It was a cold clear night.
“Quiet, non?” René said.
“Deafening.” Only the chirp of a nightingale could be heard as the fallen chestnut husks crackled under their feet. Now the quartier housed embassies in old hôtels particuliers amid exclusive countryside-like hamlets of the moneyed who could afford tranquility.
Aimée pressed the intercom at the side of the high wall fronting No. 40, which was bathed in pale streetlight.
“You have an invitation?”
She felt uneasy and cleared her throat. “Commissaire Morbier asked me. . . .”
“Un moment.” Aimée shivered as dead leaves swirled around her ankles. Voices and strains of classical music drifted through the intercom. René’s breaths showed like puffs of smoke in the night air.
A moment later, the grilled gate buzzed open. They stepped into a small garden, a jardinet, fronting a Louis Seize–era townhouse. Trellised ivy climbed the stone façade.
Twin horseshoe stone staircases ascended to the entrance of this small jewel of a mansion. Even wearing vintage Chanel, she didn’t feel comfortable in this kind of place.
René whistled. “Not bad, Aimée. We win the Lotto, we can live here too.”
Morbier, a dyed-in-the-wool Socialist, with a haute bourgeoise girlfriend? Opposites did attract. Several Mercedes were parked in the gravel driveway, which ended in a dark clump of buildings.
After buzzing the door, they entered a black and white tiled foyer. Beyond open double doors, a high-ceilinged room revealed a chandelier. The clink of glasses drifted toward them.
René unwound his Burberry scarf, putting his gloves in his coat pocket. Then he stopped. “You’re paler than usual, Aimée. Sure you want to go through with this?”
She applied Chanel Red to her lips. Blotted it with a torn deposit slip from her checkbook. “Better?”
Determined, she strode inside, where she saw a blue banner hung across the gilt-paneled wall. It read bon mariage, iratiet robbé in silver letters. Inside, the closeness of body warmth lingered. Coming from the cold into the stuffy room made her feel light-headed.
Where were the other guests?
It was only 7:30, but the cake had been cut. Smudged Champagne flutes stood on the sideboard. Only an old couple remained: a man wearing a formal black dinner jacket, a woman in a black dress more suited to a funeral. They’d seen sixty a long time ago.
René tiptoed to reach for the last of the Champagne. His fingers couldn’t quite reach it. Aimée, with a deft swipe, took a flute of fizzing rose Champagne and handed it to him.
“Vintage Taittinger. Not bad.” He shot Aimée a look. “But not what I’d call Morbier’s crowd.”
The old man, cadaver-thin and shrunken in his black jacket, winked at her. Already well into the Champagne, he had a happy glassy look in his eyes. “Don’t tell me,” he said. “You’re another cousin, eh?”
“We come in four-packs, like yogurt,” Aimée said as she scanned the room. “You don’t just marry the daughter, you get the family.”
A petite young woman, dark hair knotted in a clip, wearing a slim red skirt and a silk blouse, stepped into the room. Her large dark eyes were hesitant. The man took a look at her, grabbed his wife’s hand, and left.
“Excusez-moi, are you Irati?” Aimée asked. “I’m Aimée Leduc.”
A blank stare greeted her. Had she made a mistake? Aimée noticed clenched white knuckles clasping the silk blouse. Then the girl gave a little nod.
“Sorry to bother you,” Aimée said. “I know you’re busy. But Morbier asked me to speak with Madame Xavierre.”
Irati smiled. “Not at all. This gives me a good excuse to extricate Maman from the temperamental caterers. Now I can escape upstairs and sleep. My fiancé, Robbé, escaped already.” Her voice quavered; she paused. “But I know you, don’t I?”
“I’m Commissaire Morbier’s goddaughter.”
“Of course.” A look Aimée couldn’t decipher crossed her face.
The tinkle and crash of plates sounded from the kitchen. Irati clenched her fists together.
“Pardonnez-moi, Aimée,” Irati said and left the room.
René downed his Champagne. “A real love feast, eh? Temperamental caterers, a wedding party of geriatrics, a sweet girl. And we rushed out into the cold for this?”
She wondered herself. A cigarillo moldered in a crystal ashtray. Beside it was a half-eaten slice of gâteau Basque oozing with cherries and almond filling.
Aimée caught a whiff of gardenia, felt her shoulders grasped, and then Xavierre’s warm cheek pressed on hers in a flying kiss.
“Aimée, delightful to see you.”
Xavierre’s peach silk scarf framed her shoulders. Matching lipstick, a hint of blush, and arched brows in an unlined face. Not one dark hair out of place. If she was surprised, she didn’t show it except perhaps by a little jump in the pulse at her neck, barely discernible in the dim light.
Aimée introduced René. Xavierre shook René’s hand, holding his in her own peach nail-lacquered fingers, her gaze level, not averting her eyes as do most people confronted by a dwarf.
“Morbier late as usual? As you see, the guests have left.”
“Désolé, Xavierre, I’m his messenger.” She hesitated, sensing a tautness in Xavierre, an undercurrent. “Can we talk in private?”
She took Xavierre aside near the tall salon door and lowered her voice. “A last-minute investigation came up. He asked me to tell you in person.”
“But why? He went to too much trouble. I’m fine.”
“You didn’t answer your phone.” Aimée hesitated. “He worried. . . .”
“My phone?” Xavierre blinked. Then laughed. “Zut! I guess I forgot to charge it.”
Aimée nodded. “I forget all the time too. But is anything wrong? I mean. . . .”
A line tightened at the corner of Xavierre’s perfectly applied peach lipstick. “Have you ever planned a wedding on two weeks’ notice?”
Aimée shook her head, feeling awkward. Did that explain it?
She couldn’t ask Xavierre if she was having an affair. Not her business. But she could put in a good word for Morbier. “I’ve never seen Morbier so happy, Xavierre.”
Xavierre smiled, squeezing Aimée’s hand. Her look was wistful. “But we met more than twenty years ago. He hasn’t told you? A coup de foudre, love at first sight.” She gave a little sigh. “My marriage, his, children, divorce got in the way. But when I ran into him last month, we reignited. It was as if we’d never said good-bye.”
A phone trilled from the hallway. Xavierre’s eyes clouded. There was a flutter of fear in them. Her shoulders tensed, and then she seemed to relax. Aimée heard the click of heels in the hallway and then Irati answering the phone.
Xavierre sighed. “I’ve got so much to do for the wedding on Sunday. I’ll reach Morbier later. I think it’s better if you go now.”
Xavierre took a deep breath. “You understand, non?”
Aimée could understand. But not the flicker behind Xavierre’s eyes and the tight smile. Family problems? Or something else?
“You’ll need to excuse me.” And without another word, Xavierre left.
Aimée heard footsteps coming from the kitchen. A moment later, Irati stood at their side. “Maman’s upset; let me apologize for her,” Irati said. “The wedding plans, stress of relatives, endless. Me, I’m calm. Supposed to be the other way round, non?” She gave a short laugh.
Short and forced, Aimée thought. What undercurrents are flowing here? she wondered. “Maybe it would have been easier if Morbier had been here,” Aimée said.
“Nothing would help.” Irati blinked, then looked away, distracted.
What did that mean? Time to disregard tact and force the issue. “Morbier was worried she was having an affair,” Aimée said.
René shot her a look.
“You’re saying my mother would—” Irati said.
“Me and my mouth,” Aimée interrupted. “Please forget you ever heard that, Irati.” Aimée paused. “Your mother’s upset. Can I help?”
“Right now I wish this were all over,” Irati said.
Not exactly the excited bride-to-be, Aimée thought. “What’s wrong?”
Pause. “Robbé and I wanted to keep it simple. But you didn’t hear that either.” Irati took Aimée’s arm. “In Basque, when things go badly, we say it’s like cobwebs: just brush them away and get on with it. I’ll see you both out.”
Outside, the crisp biting wind met them. The air cleared Aimée’s head, but did not dispel her unease. Xavierre was hiding something.
“What do you make of that, René?”
“A tempest in a teapot,” he said with disgust. “Morbier’s overreacting.”
She wished she thought so too.
“But, considering the Taittinger,” René said, smiling, “not a totally wasted trip.”
Fir branches scraped the wall, their scent released into the crisp air. Beyond, at the side of the house, was the service entrance. A dim glow shone from windows, pooling yellow on the gravel.
“Give me a moment,” she said, unable to get rid of her sense of unease. “I’ll be right back.”
She walked over the gravel toward the kitchen’s back windows.
For a moment she sensed a presence. A feeling that someone was watching them. As she was about to look up from the crunching gravel under her feet, she heard a squishing sound. Her shoe’s pointed toe was mired in softness. Leaves, and something else, clung to her red-soled Louboutin heels. Then the smell hit her. Dog poo! Great.
She heard the gate click open.
“Un moment, René.”
She leaned against the stone wall, took the penlight from her bag to see to clean off her shoe, and shook her head. “My brand new heels, too!”
In the penlight’s beam, she saw by the tan smeared dog poo several reddish-brown congealing clumps on her shoe sole. She grabbed a twig to scrape it all off. There was a coppery metallic smell. She looked closer.
Her hand froze. “René,” she whispered.
“What now? I’m cold.” He let the gate shut. His gaze traveled the penlight’s beam, which traced a reddish-brown trail of droplets over the gravel path along the ivy-covered wall.
“I don’t get it.” René shook his head. “It’s late. Let’s go, Aimée.”
From behind the house, Aimée heard a car start. The rumble of a diesel engine, the spit of gravel as it took off. She tiptoed ahead, rounded the corner, crouched under the windows. Shadows flickered. She saw movement inside the house.
“It’s not our business.” René stood behind her next to green garbage bins by the short flight of back steps.
“Shhh.” She leaned toward him, tugged his elbow. “He thinks we left.”
“The figure watching from the window,” Aimée said, pointing at the house. “He heard the gate close.”
Hunched down, she poked with the twig, noticing that the blood had darkened. It had semi-clotted in the cold night air. The blood was not fresh, but not old enough to have dried. She followed the blood spatter trail on the gravel around the corner to the garden.
Her penlight beam illuminated the evening-misted hedgerow, a tangled fragment of peach scarf, and, farther on, a figure slumped among the gooseberry bushes against the stone wall. Fear jolted along her spine.
“Xavierre?” Her throat caught. “You all right?”
But the cocked angle of Xavierre’s head, the scarf twisted tight around her neck, and her unblinking gaze told Aimée that Xavierre wouldn’t answer now. Couldn’t.
“My god, René! Call the SAMU!”
He flipped his phone open.
Horror-stricken, Aimée untied the scarf digging into Xavierre’s flesh. She felt for a pulse. None. Frantically, she made quick thrusts to Xavierre’s chest.
“Maman?” Irati’s voice came from the open French doors.
“Telephone for you.”
Wind rustled the damp leaves tattooing shadows across Xavierre’s pale face. “What’s going on?” Irati said. “What have you done to my mother?”
“Her heart’s not beating, Irati.”
“I don’t understand.” Then a piercing scream. Irati knelt down by Xavierre’s lifeless body, stroking her mother’s cheek. “You killed Maman!”
“No, we found her like this.” Aimée turned to René, who’d knelt beside her. “Tell the flics to hurry.”
Choking sounds came from Irati. “What do you mean?”
“I heard a car pull away, then saw blood,” Aimée said. “Who was in your house, Irati?”
And then she felt Irati’s fists punching her. “Non, non . . . this can’t happen!”
Aimée caught her arms and pulled her away. “Let’s go inside.”
Irati shook Aimée’s hands off. “And leave her in the cold?”
Aimée noticed the snapped twigs, bent bushes, the flattened grass feathering the gravel. She saw damp footprints and something that glinted.
“Please. I’m sorry, but it’s better if we don’t touch anything.”
Before she could check the bushes, a thump came from behind her and Irati sprawled, collapsed, sobbing on the dirt.
* * *