June, 1998: Paris’s sticky summer heat is even more oppressive than usual as rowdy French football fans riot in anticipation of the World Cup. Private investigator Aimée Leduc has been trying to slow down her hectic lifestyle—she’s five months pregnant and has the baby’s well-being to think about now. But then disaster strikes close to home. A serial rapist has been terrorizing Paris’s Pigalle neighborhood, following teenage girls home and attacking them in their own houses. Zazie, the 13-year-old daughter of the proprietor of Aimée’s favorite café, has disappeared. The police aren’t mobilizing quickly enough, and when Zazie’s desperate parents approach Aimée for help, she knows she couldn’t say no even if she wanted to.
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Paris, June 1998. Monday, 1:15 P.M.
Stepping into the shadowed cool of Passage Verdeau, Aimée Leduc welcomed the reprieve from the late-June heat—but not the barrel of the Uzi blocking her way. Stifling a gasp, she clutched her stomach, felt a flutter.
“Mind lowering that?” she said to the CRS riot officer standing in her path.
Dim light filtered through the nineteenth-century passage’s glass roof and onto the cracked mosaic under her heels. The smell of old books hung in the narrow passage, heightened the faded charm of the shop fronts.
“Use the other exit, Mademoiselle . . . er, Madame.”
What was disrupting traffic this time? Another demonstration? World Cup fever igniting riots? Pre-Fête de la Musique revels? End of exams? This week there was so much to choose from.
She shouldered her second-hand Birkin bag, prenatal vitamins rattling against the mascara tubes and Beretta summer catalogues. “What’s the problem?”
She blinked, recognizing the voice and the face under the riot helmet. “Daniel! You had training wheels on your bike the last time I saw you.” It was her godfather Morbier’s nephew. Fond memories returned of pushing him on a rope swing at her grandmother’s Auvergne farm. “Seems you’ve graduated to new toys.”
“And you’re pregnant, Aimée.” Daniel smiled, slung his Uzi behind his shoulder and kissed both of her cheeks. “Never thought you’d join the bourgeoisie. Married, eh? Someone I know?”
“It’s complicated.” She averted her eyes. Melac, her baby’s father, didn’t know she was pregnant. He’d taken leave from the Brigade Criminelle to go back to Brittany and sit at his daughter’s hospital bedside—she had been in a coma since a bus accident four months ago.
“Still working, too,” Daniel said.
“Cyber crime never takes a holiday.” Thank God for that, or Leduc Detective would be out of business. “Don’t tell me it’s the sewer workers demonstrating again?” A sigh escaped her as she imagined the choked traffic and tar fumes from the hot pavement.
“Nothing so pungent,” he said. “Security detail.”
Aimée’s eyes widened. In CRS speak that meant there had been a security threat, patrols and surveillance. “A bomb threat?”
Daniel’s eyes veiled. “Nothing that exciting.”
“Zut, Daniel, you used to play with my Lego. Spill.”
Muttering under his breath, he said, “The powers that be
don’t relish the City of Light being tarnished by corruption . . .”
But she didn’t catch the rest, as the commander barked an order to advance. His CRS unit continued forward, toward the Grands Boulevards lined by leafy lime trees. Their thumping boots trampled the fallen blossoms, emitting a waft of citrus.
As Aimée waited at the bus stop near the Opéra, her impatience mounted. Shoppers and office workers filled the zebra-striped crosswalks, traffic clogged the boulevards and, comme toujours, middle-aged hookers plied their trade on rue Joubert behind the Printemps department store. By the time she reached her office building on rue du Louvre, a fine sheen of perspiration dotted her upper lip.
The shaking wire-cage elevator wheezed up to the third floor. Fishing out her compact, she checked her lipstick then stepped out onto the scuffed landing. Leduc Detective’s frostedglass door was open.
René had ordered new shelving for a wall module to make room for the crib, and there was a strange man in overalls tapping away at her office wall. Aimée stifled her irritation. All the baby preparation had become a bone of contention between her and René—like a lot of things these days. It was like he was the one having her baby—eat this, not that; exercise, don’t lift.
Hot recycled air spun from the old fan under the office chandelier, and lemony afternoon light slanted over the parquet floor. She couldn’t wait to nudge off her peep-toe kitten heels, put her feet up and drink something cold. Shuffling noises came from the rear.
A head of curly red hair popped up from behind Aimée’s desk. It belonged to Zazie, the thirteen-year-old daughter of the café owners on the corner. A worried look shone in Zazie’s eyes. “René’s gone to the tax office, Aimée. Said you should start praying.”
Aimée groaned. René had spent all last night calculating their revenue. If they didn’t figure something out quickly they’d have to pay a penalty—with what money, she didn’t know. The curse of the last week in June!
The worker in overalls set his hammer down by their printer.
“Tell Monsieur Friant I’ve taken the measurements,” he said as
he left. “Delivery tomorrow.”
She could do with an iced espresso right now. And taking
a load off her feet. The hottest June in years! She caught her
“Are you all right, Aimée?” asked Zazie, her eyes big.
“Fine.” She let herself down into René’s ergonomic chair and kicked off her heels. The cold wood floor chilled her feet. Almost six months pregnant and still nausea in the morning. “Wait une petite seconde. Why aren’t you in class?”
Zazie played with the red tassel on her backpack’s zipper, averted her gaze.
“What’s wrong, Zazie?”
When she met Aimée’s eyes, her lip quivered. “Mélanie, a girl in my school, was . . . attacked.”
“Attacked?” Concerned, Aimée took Zazie’s hand. “Sit down. Tell me what happened.”
Zazie took a school binder labeled Suspect W and pulled out a newspaper clipping. The headline read, Twelve-yearold Lycée student sexually assaulted in home after school.
Aimée blinked, horrified. “What is Suspect W? Is this some grotesque class project? I don’t understand.”
“Mélanie’s not the first.” Zazie’s voice quavered. “She’s in the clinic, but she told me things, terrible things.”
“This is your friend, in the article?” Aimée shuddered. “Zazie, how frightening . . .”
“Not just frightening. But . . .” Zazie hesitated. “There’s more.” She showed Aimée another clipping, dated from last December. Twelve-year-old victim of brutal sexual assault discovered by parents. “It must be the same person,” Zazie said. “Shouldn’t someone do something to stop it, Aimée?”
“But you don’t know they’re related,” Aimée said, although her mind was turning. A serial rapist preying on young girls?
Her skin prickled as she remembered that long-ago afternoon, a hot, humid June just like this one, when she was eight years old. It was soon after her American mother had disappeared. On Île Saint-Louis a man had followed her after school. He’d offered her an ice cream at Bertillon’s on the corner—she could almost taste the cassis-limon. But something in the man’s smile, the way he stroked her bare arm, had made her shiver. “Can’t I tickle you?” She backed away, ran down rue des Deux Ponts around the corner to the quai and into her courtyard.
Her mind came back to the present at the rrrrrr of Zazie’s backpack zipper, which the girl was still playing with anxiously.
Two similar attacks in a short period of time, both on girls about Zazie’s age—one of them Zazie’s friend. Could Zazie be right? Could it be one man? Had the flics put it together yet, and if not, might there be other victims? Aimée’s stomach clenched.
“You have to be careful, Zazie. Never let anyone follow you home.”
Zazie chewed her lip. “I have to do something.”
“Bien sûr, support your friend, she needs you right now.”
“Don’t you get it, Aimée?” Zazie shook her head. “Zut, I want to stop him. The police aren’t doing anything. If they were, they would have caught him before he hurt Mélanie.”
Her eyes shone with anger. “If the flics aren’t paying attention, then I have to find him.”
“Playing detective, Zazie? Don’t be silly. We’ve talked about this.” She strengthened her grip on Zazie’s hand. “Alors! Do you know how dangerous someone like that can be? You can’t take on someone like that on your own.”
Zazie thrust a FotoFit, a computer-generated image culled from composite descriptions, into Aimée’s hand. “That’s what he looks like.”
Small, deep-set eyes, thin mouth, wearing a cap. He could be anyone. “How do you know?”
“Mélanie described him to the flics.”
“So the flics are working to find him, then.” Aimée shuddered. “They can’t get him off the streets too soon.”
“The flics haven’t put it together, Aimée. They made this composite, but they’re not moving fast enough. Mélanie was
attacked three days ago, and they have no leads! He’s got a pattern, he’ll attack again.” Zazie’s face was set with determination. “No girl’s safe until someone finds him and brings him right to their door, but I know who he is. I recognized him from the FotoFit. Now I just have to prove it’s him.”
Alarmed now, Aimée decided she needed to reason with her. “Whether he’s the one or not, it’s the flics’ job to find him. Not yours, Zazie. If you think you know who this man is who attacked your friend, you tell the flics and then you stay away from him, do you understand me?”
“All the parents went to the Commissariat for a meeting, even the teachers came,” said Zazie. “The flics talked about the mec’s constitutional rights, harassment without evidence. Mélanie’s mother was crying. Can you imagine?”
She could. The burden of proof wasn’t always fair. She’d seen it too many times. She looked into this child’s eyes and saw a budding young woman with the world’s weight on her shoulders. An innocent, but for how much longer?
Her eye caught on the papers in Zazie’s open Suspect W binder. “Wait a minute, what’s this?” She pointed to a black-and-white photo of a street scene. “This photo looks like it was shot with a telephoto lens.”
Zazie nodded. “My friend’s got a good camera. It’s surveillance, like you and René do. The suspect goes to this bar on rue Pierre Fontaine in Pigalle.”
Aimée stifled a gasp. The photo was a night shot—what had this child seen? She knew that street in Pigalle, and it was no place for Zazie after dark. In the daytime, the area below Place Pigalle was a peaceful world of families, fishmongers, boulangeries and shops; costume ateliers that supplied the vibrant theatrical scene in the thirteen theaters dotting the quartier; actresses with their children at the park. But at night it was another world entirely: drugs, prostitutes, hustlers, pimps, sex shops, massage parlors. A red-light district.
“How do you know he goes there?” Aimée said carefully.
“I followed him to the NeoCancan.”
Aimée wanted to spank Zazie, but she was too big. “Followed him, Zazie? What were you thinking?”
“He hung around outside our school.”
Goosebumps rose on Aimée’s arms. She reached out and touched Zazie’s cheek. “That’s too dangerous. No more, Zazie. Please promise me.”
“If I promise not to go myself, will you check out the bar?”
Zazie’s goal all along, she realized. But she recognized herself in Zazie—that striving to be taken seriously. Her father had always taken time with her, his patience insurmountable. But right now Aimée didn’t feel that she could live up to his example and take on Zazie’s little investigation. She had to pee every half hour, her ankles swelled, there was the nausea in the morning. She’d like to smack the next person who told her morning sickness ended with the first trimester. Then this damned tax . . . This was a job for the flics, who, it seemed, were already working on it—although privately Aimée shared Zazie’s doubts. She knew how good the flics were at listening to witnesses, and if this FotoFit was all they had to go on, they really didn’t have much.
Not that Zazie had any more than they did, whatever she thought.
Aimée heard the hum of a cell phone on vibrate. Zazie pulled a purple phone from her jeans pocket. Just turned thirteen and she had a cell phone?
“When did you get a phone?”
“My uncle’s letting me use his,” she said, pride creeping into her voice. She glanced at the display and put the unanswered phone back in her pocket. “I’m late, got to study, finish my class project,” she said. “Can you help, Aimée?”
Help her? What could Aimée do, other than tell Zazie’s parents to ground her after school and make some calls to a flic she once knew in Vice?
“Just look over my notes, please?”
“On one condition, Zazie,” she said, taking the binder. “Study for your exams, and leave this alone while I get up to speed on your . . .” Aimée searched for the right word. “Report.”
Zazie’s eyes widened in thanks. She jotted her cell-phone number on the binder. “Then we’ll compare notes tonight, d’accord? Later, Aimée.” With a wave, Zazie had gone out the door.
Deep in thought, Aimée ground the last of René’s beans and powered up their espresso machine, watched the chocolate brown drip into the demi-tasse cup. A little girl hunting the rapist of her schoolmate—compelled to help her friend since the flics were making no progress. What was the world coming to?
Zazie wore lip gloss and a touch of mascara these days, but Aimée remembered the young Zazie, sitting behind the café counter and coloring with crayons. Aimée had watched her grow up over the years. Telling Zazie flat-out to stop this would get her nowhere. She’d deflected her for the present, but Aimée knew it was only temporary.
No ice in the suitcase-sized fridge. With a sigh Aimée plopped two brown sugar cubes in the demi-tasse, stirred.
Even now, years later, she vibrated with fear remembering how the man had continued following her, standing and waiting on the quai outside their apartment. She remembered the hot wind blowing the curtain as she’d stood in the window and pointed him out to her father when he got home, then a flic at the Commissariat.
“That one? Good girl, Aimée,” he’d said. “Go finish your homework.”
She’d never seen the man again. And her father had upped her allowance. “In case you want ice cream.”
Now Aimée punched in the café number—she needed to speak with Virginie, Zazie’s mother, and warn her about Zazie’s project. Busy. She was about to slip back into her heels and go down to the corner café in person when Leduc Detective’s phone lines lit up. Clients needed attention, networks needed security, virus scans needed running. Crunch time, like every year in June—impossible to avoid since, as contractors, they were always the last to be paid. René always had only a short window to add the last-moment revenue and compute their estimated taxes.
By the time she looked up again, the shadows on rue du Louvre had lengthened. Almost 7 p.m. and still no René. The butterscotch glow of the evening sun reflected on the mansard windows opposite—the sun set late in the summer, and there were at least another two and a half hours of daylight.
Aimée satisfied her latest craving from the stash in the small fridge in back: cornichons, capers and kiwis. Didn’t that cover at least three food groups?
Still more scans to monitor, but she’d run out of décaféiné espresso beans and she needed to speak to Virginie tonight, before Zazie took things too far.
But when Aimée entered the bustling café she didn’t see Zazie where she would normally be on busy evenings, helping at the counter. The télé, a new addition for the World Cup, showed a play-off game, and the café was filled with shouts and the smell of spilled beer.
“How you feeling, Aimée?” said Virginie, making change for customers at a window table. “Got over the morning sickness?”
She wished. “Not yet.” The malted beer odor filled her nose, but her stomach stayed in place. For once.
“Don’t I remember,” said Virginie.
Warm air rippled in from the street and a dog barked outside the open door. Aimée caught Virginie’s eye. “Can we talk before Zazie gets back? It’s important.”
Aimée felt a prickling up her spine.
One of the flushed-faced World Cup fans walked up to pay.
“Alors,” Virginie said. “Do me a favor and make two cafés crèmes for those ladies down the counter? And help yourself to n express.”
“Pas de problème,” she said. Not the first time she’d barista’d. She whacked the grinds out from the stainless steel, frothed the milk with a whoosh and dolloped foam. The steaming brown– black liquid dripped serré, double strength, for her.
Sipping her décaféiné express, she followed Virginie behind the zinc counter to the unventilated back kitchen. Steaming heat came from the stove. “You’re working by yourself tonight?”
“Pierre’s gone for more wine, the baby’s with my niece.” Virginie wiped her face with a towel, reached for a tray. “This World Cup makes for booming business. We’re run off our feet. Pierre’s brother’s supposed to help.” Virginie sighed. “Don’t know why I gave in and let Zazie use his phone when she won’t answer it.”
Zazie wasn’t answering her phone? Aimée made herself take a deep breath. There could be a reasonable explanation. Not the horrific one her mind jumped to. “Dites-moi, how late is she?”
“An hour.” Virginie glanced at the wall clock. “More. Not like her with exams coming up. She’ll have to answer to her father now.”
All Aimée could think was that Zazie had gone to surveil the bar again. She was underage, but she would somehow talk her way in. Or watch this “rapist” she thought she’d tracked down from the street.
Aimée pulled out her phone, scrolled to the number she’d entered for Zazie. “Let me try her.”
“She could be in the Métro and have no service. Stuck in a—” She caught herself before she said dead zone.
Virginie blinked. A momentary stillness settled over her and then she grabbed Aimée’s arms. Irritation mixed with fear in her eyes. “She’s told you about Mélanie’s assault, hasn’t she? Her silly plan. I forbade her to get involved.”
“That’s why I wanted to talk.”
“Tonight, she said she was going to study with Sylvaine.” Virginie emanated an almost palpable tension. “It sounded perfectly safe but now she’s so late, and not answering her phone . . .”
This feeling piercing Aimée’s gut told her Zazie had another agenda. Calm, she had to stay calm for Virginie. “Do you know Sylvaine’s number?”
Footsteps and someone entered the café. Hope and anger fluttered in Virginie’s eyes. “There she is, about time.”
But it was Pierre, her husband, wiping his forehead with a bandana and pushing a dolly loaded with wine cases. “Zazie’s still not here? Tables five and six want to order. Number seven needs their bill.”
On the board above the sink Virginie took down the business card of a cheese shop on rue de Rochechouart. “Sylvaine’s family run this shop, and live above it. I’ll call them.”
“Does Sylvaine have a cell phone, like Zazie?”
“Impossible. Georges, her father, is old-fashioned.” Pierre winked.
“And très religeux—the whole family is,” Virginie said. “That’s why Pierre thinks Sylvaine’s a good influence on Zazie.”
Aimée wiped her perspiring brow, wishing for a whisper of air in the hot kitchen. Standing next to Virginie, she listened to the ringing and ringing. “Alors, they won’t answer this late . . .”
But Aimée heard a click. Muffled sounds. “Allô, Georges, it’s Virginie,” she said. “What? Say that again.” A whisper of fear went up Aimée’s neck. “An ambulance?”
Virginie dropped the receiver into the sink. Time slowed for Aimée as an explosion of Persil soap suds and brown-stained espresso cups burst from the sink, the foamy spray arcing as if in a freeze-frame—and she knew this moment would be imprinted on her consciousness forever.