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The Girl in the Shadows
By Katherine Debona
HarperCollins PublishersCopyright © 2017 Katherine Debona
All rights reserved.
Paris, France. Before.
'Death isn't your only option.'
'You know what she's like.' Spidery lashes fell onto ashen skin, the suggestion of a bruise already beginning to show.
'Then go to the police.' His words were accompanied by a bulbous cloud of nicotine that she swatted away, the movement rippling up her arm in an accumulation of pain. He held on to her as they crossed the street, tighter than she would normally allow.
A woman ran past, lean precise movements that Mathilde recognised without needing to look. She knew the woman would turn at the corner and cross the river, would return to this café to sit in the corner as she ordered her staple of coffee and eggs.
'At least go to the hospital.' He held the door open for her and she sank into the café's enveloping warmth.
'Non. No hospitals. No records, nothing that can be used to find me.' She sat at an empty table as he went over to the bar, found herself scanning the road outside, seeking out the retreating runner.
She had wanted to speak to her from the very first time. To ask her the story behind her scar, to find out if she too had suffered at the hands of another. But there was never a moment in which she felt able to step into the open, to reveal the truth she had kept hidden for so long.
And now she had to bury the lies even deeper.
He placed a glass mug in front of her. Amber tendrils seeped out into the steaming water as fragrant leaves teased her senses and her stomach complained at its lack of sustenance. She remembered the abandoned supper, her mind taunting her with the image she knew she could never forget.
'She will look for you.' He sipped his own drink, lips puckering at the bitter heat.
'Then let me protect you.'
'You're sweet.' She dropped her head, tucked a curl behind one ear.
'But not sweet enough.'
It was too much. The effort of trying to exist was slowly wasting her away. She had to run, to free herself of the endless to and fro, of camouflaging her pain. Pain that had become as commonplace as the setting of the sun.
There was no other way.
'Take this.' She removed the locket from around her neck, rubbing it against the ruby clot on her forehead before handing it over.
'Where should I leave it?'
'Somewhere it will be found.'
She dared not answer. A conscience that had been her downfall, a softness she had battled against still preventing her from uttering any untruth.
'Then go.' He swiped at the air, polished cufflinks catching the light and dancing over her face.
She stood on legs dragged down by the inevitable. The chair clattered to the floor behind her, but no one turned to watch, the hour too early for any other customers.
'Be careful,' she whispered. All too aware of the risk he was going to take, for her.
'You showed me a kindness I had long since forgotten.' He cupped her hand between his own, eyes focused on the movement of thumb over her wrist as the solace in his voice offered up a farewell. 'God will not spare my soul. It is tainted with the cruelty of too many years. But you still have the chance of living, of sharing your gift with the world.'
She took back her hand. 'I won't forget you.'
'You should,' he said as she opened the door, allowing the morning back in.
One step over the threshold, two steps to the kerb, three steps towards the river, four steps more. The road stretched out ahead, shadows waking as dawn seeped into the sky.CHAPTER 2
Paris, France. Now.
Without needing to raise her gaze Veronique sensed the waiter approach and she moved her arm to cover the photograph on the table. She heard the change in his footfall, imagined his surprise as he looked from the left side of her face to the right and back again. She tilted her chin and smiled at him, the creases below her left eye intermingling with the deep scar that ran across her cheek, melted muscle and sinew preventing any symmetry across her features.
'Madame?' the waiter asked, standing a little too far from the table and eyes fixed on a spot just behind her.
'C'est ton premier jour,' she replied, 'but tomorrow you won't be new, so I'll only forgive your mistake this one time.' Holding her cup out she waited for him to take it. 'Every morning it is the same. Espresso. Double, with a single shot of mocha and a spoon on the side.'
The waiter leant forward to take her cup, eyes widening as they focused on the uneven stretch of her skin over bone. He was about to return to the bar when she grabbed hold of his wrist, pulling him close.
'Take a good look,' she whispered. 'Most people don't get this close.' She turned her left cheek towards him, exposing not only the silver scar that traversed one side of her face, but the milky sheen to her unseeing eye.
Dropping his arm she turned back towards the window, a shadow cutting her in two. At this time of day her scar would be hidden from passers-by as the sun rose over the square.
Veronique listened as he stumbled his way back to the bar, the intonation of his voice telling her what he was saying without the need to understand individual words. She was good at listening, on picking up the nuances in others' speech, at the subtleties each pitch would bring to the words they were uttering. Years spent spying through doors left ajar and eavesdropping on conversations best left unheard had provided her with an excellent tool to aid her work as a private investigator.
Reaching into her bag Veronique unzipped an internal pocket to retrieve a small notebook. Unwrapping the cord she opened the book to a clean page, easing aside the spine and flattening the sheets underneath her palms. She picked up her fountain pen and began to make notes, her right eye flicking between the police report Christophe had managed to acquire and her own small, rounded script.
Usually she didn't take this type of case, but there was something about the missing teenager that clawed at her, demanded she take a second look. Examining the photograph supplied to the police by the grieving mother, Veronique listed identifying features: blonde hair – mid-length with a natural curl, hazel eyes, small nose, beauty spot on the chin, six-inch scar running from left clavicle towards her elbow.
The resemblance was coincidental but unsettling. The girl had the same nervous, wide-eyed gaze: a gaze that hinted at a buried fear from which Veronique had been running ever since the night of the fire.
She sat back in her chair, placing the pen on her notebook and clasping her hands in front of her, determined not to bring her fingertips up to her face. She already knew her own scar by heart – had no need to touch it to remember each dip and fall of her tarnished skin, the way it would ache in the mornings if she had lain on the wrong side.
Is that all it was, she wondered? The scar? Or was it more to do with the money? She only needed a few more lucrative cases like this and she would have enough to make the final payment, no more ties to bureaucracy. Then the appartement would be hers, her own little piece of the city, along with stability and the possibility of a future.
There was more. The reminder of someone she was forever trying to forget. The idea of a lost daughter and an anxious mother waiting for her to come home. Something Veronique had never known. Besides, the opportunity to find holes in Guillaume's investigation, to prove him wrong, was too much to resist.
The waiter returned, laying the coffee cup in front of her with a trembling hand.
'Merci,' Veronique said with a small nod, picking up the silver teaspoon in her left hand and stirring the dark, viscous liquid twice anticlockwise. After tapping the spoon on the rim of the cup she placed it on the saucer, curling the index finger of her right hand through the cup's handle and bringing it to her mouth. She inhaled the bitterness before it made contact with her lips, feeling the heat pass over her tongue and down her throat.
'Madame?' the waiter asked, shifting his weight from foot to foot.
'Yes, yes, you did well, young pup.' Veronique waved the young man away as she took another sip of coffee.
'Excusez-moi, Madame, you like something to eat also?'
'Are you suggesting that I should eat something?' Veronique said, leaning her arm over the back of the chair, her silk T-shirt rising up to expose a toned stomach. 'Or perhaps that I should not?' A tease tugged at the corners of her mouth, the eyelashes on her good eye dipping to her cheek and back up again. She was fully aware of the effect she had on men, even with only half a face at her disposal.
The waiter's gaze dropped to the pair of boxing gloves tied around one handle of Veronique's handbag.
'Laurent told me you always have the eggs,' he said, eyes travelling up over her tanned thighs, pausing at the hem of her black lace shorts where the tail of a Celtic tattoo was broken by scar tissue. The waiter looked back up at her face, awaiting a response.
She understood what it was to have people stare at you, both from awe and shock. She had been truly beautiful once, before the fire, but now she was doomed to be a walking contradiction.
'Nothing today, thank you,' she said to the waiter, picking up the police file and reading the address of the missing girl, Mathilde Benazet. 'I have somewhere to be.'
The square outside was busy with people crisscrossing one another as they began their day. Veronique stepped between them, her own footfalls intermingling with the sounds of Paris waking up. A moped sped over cobblestones, flicking up dew that stuck to her bare legs. The scent of the river Seine rose towards her as she looked behind to where the tip of the Eiffel Tower jutted over the rooftops.
Crossing the Solferino bridge, she ran a hand over the thousands of padlocks that had multiplied like germs to encompass the railings. She was intrigued by the sentimentality behind the ritual of locking one piece of metal to another and believing that it would prevent your love from ever breaking. This was only one of many such bridges in Paris, infested with people's naivety.
Bypassing a group waiting at the lights she ran over the road and into the Jardins des Tuileries. The path was flanked either side by horse chestnut trees, the crunch of gravel underfoot doing little to muffle the growing sound of rush hour around the Louvre. She didn't need to turn around to see the building, all four storeys rising out of the banks of the Seine, its glass pyramid like a shining beacon at its centre, drawing towards it tourists and locals alike. She wasn't a huge fan of galleries, of being told which pieces were important enough for her to pay attention to, yet there was something comforting about wandering the halls, listening to muted conversations that bounced off the old masters.
A man passed at a jog, a small dachshund struggling to match his strides. Veronique followed them, watched as the man bent to pick up the dog and continued running towards the fountain at the far end of the park.
Veronique searched the park for a reason as to why Mathilde came here, to this specific park the night she disappeared. Was she meeting someone? Using the park as a cut-through to a different destination? Her digital imprint suggested a life focused on specific areas of the city: her appartement, university and then Montmartre near where she worked. Why then had she headed south, towards the river?
The last place Mathilde had used her credit card was a restaurant three streets away from where she lived, timed at 23.41 on 7th June. Since then there had been no online activity on any of her social network sites, no credit card usage, nothing. The police report claimed the only witness to have seen Mathilde was unreliable but didn't state on what grounds.
Circling the fountain Veronique headed along the Champs-Élysées, lines of traffic streaming towards the Arc de Triomphe like lemmings. The roof of the Grand Palais caught the morning sun as she passed, the city's aristocratic history hidden amongst modernity, the streets long since clean of the blood that was spilled.
What had made Guillaume so quick to dismiss the case as nothing more than a runaway? Surely the fact Mathilde had been seen in the early hours of the morning in a park some distance away from her home and place of work warranted further investigation? Or was it because she was legally of adult age and therefore free to come and go as she wished, which pushed her case to the bottom of the pile?
The police had missed something, but at first glance Veronique couldn't see what that was. Nothing stood out amongst the files and a preliminary online search told her very little about Mathilde Benazet. Interview notes painted a picture of a shy girl, a bit of a recluse. Her tutor said she was a diligent pupil and showed promise but seemed a little distracted recently, which had affected her grades.
The change seemed to occur around the same time she began working at a music café in Montmartre, co-workers stating that she hadn't missed a single shift in the last six months. Nothing out of the ordinary, most undergraduates went through a phase of choosing a social life over the library, but Mathilde didn't come across as a party girl.
Veronique crossed over Avenue George V and then turned right, a map of Paris imprinted on her mind. She had walked every street of the city, explored every back corner and could find her way even in the dark. Every district had its own character, its own presence, which was determined as much by the people in it as the buildings. She didn't like this part of Paris. It was too brash, too garish, with sprawling streets and designer stores, the narrowed gaze of its patrons as you passed.
Veronique checked the address on her phone as she looked up at the pale stone building in front of her. She smoothed her hair from her face – thinking perhaps she should have at least brushed it after her gym session that morning – before ringing the bell above the sign for Apartment 3.
'Oui?' came the response over the intercom.
'Madame Benazet?' Veronique replied. 'My name is Veronique Cotillard. We spoke on the phone?'
'Ah yes, of course. Won't you come up?'
Veronique pushed against the wrought-iron gate, walking through into a private courtyard. In the centre stood an ornate fountain, the delicate sound of water accompanied by the faint notes of Mozart coming from an open window above her head. A doorway to her right was framed by trailing jasmine, its scent settling on her clothes as she passed through into a lobby with marbled floor and a crystal chandelier hanging from the double-height ceiling.
After walking past the lift Veronique ascended the stairs to the second floor, her footfalls muffled by the striped runner. Pausing outside Apartment 3 she angled her face away from the door before lifting the brass knocker and allowing it to fall against the gleaming mahogany.
'Madame Benazet.' Fixing a smile on her face she extended her hand in greeting.
The smile that was returned didn't quite meet eyes that flickered from one side of Veronique's face to the other. If Madame Benazet was surprised by the woman standing in her doorway she gave no indication of it.
'Please,' she said, gesturing for Veronique to enter, 'do come in. I hope the traffic wasn't too bad. It can be rather busy at this time of day.'
'I walked,' Veronique replied as the door was shut behind her.
'I see. Please would you remove your shoes and follow me.'
Veronique did as she was asked, following Madame Benazet along a carpeted hallway with photographs lining the walls and into a room screaming for attention. An oversized mirror, deep velvet curtains framing dual-aspect windows and lilies adorning every conceivable surface.
'Can you tell me a little about Mathilde?' she asked, sitting on a nearby sofa and sinking into the cushions.
'What would you like to know?' Madame Benazet stood by the mirror, repositioning one of the flower arrangements.
'Something about her character, her favourite food, anything. It doesn't matter whether or not you think it's relevant.'
'What can I tell you about Mathilde?' A sigh, a stroke of hair, fingertips lingering on a drop diamond earring. 'She's a bit of an attention-seeker, a bit melodramatic.'
'Can you give me an example?'
'Mathilde is a rather difficult girl, always has been,' she began, descending onto a wing-backed chair and crossing her legs. 'Even as a baby she was always the one demanding attention. If only she could have been more like ...'
'Oh, you know.' A wave of her manicured hand. 'I suppose I had an idea of what motherhood was going to be like, but then these things rarely live up to your expectations, do they?'
'I wouldn't know, Madame. I don't have any children.'
Excerpted from The Girl in the Shadows by Katherine Debona. Copyright © 2017 Katherine Debona. Excerpted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers.
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