Murder in the Latin Quarter
SOHOCopyright © 2009 Cara Black
All right reserved.ISBN: 978-1-56947-541-6
Chapter One Paris, September 1997, Monday Afternoon
Aimée Leduc's fingers paused on the keyboard of her laptop as she felt a sudden unease but it vanished as quickly as the mist that curled up under the Pont Neuf. At least, she thought, thanks to the cleaning lady, the chandelier gleamed, the aroma of beeswax polish hovered, and Leduc Detective's office shone. For once. It should impress her high-powered client, the Private Banque Morel's administrator, who was due in ten minutes.
Aimée checked for lint on her Dior jacket, a flea-market find. She heard a footstep and looked up expectantly.
A woman in her late thirties stood in the doorway to the office. She was a tall, light-complected mulatto, wearing a denim skirt and clutching oversize sunglasses in her hand. She stepped inside, her gaze taking in the nineteenth-century high ceilings and carved moldings as well as the array of computers.
"This place isn't what I expected," said the woman in lilting French. She had an accent Aimée didn't recognize.
"Maybe you're in the wrong place, Mademoiselle," Aimée said, irritated. "Our firm handles computer security only." She ran her chipped red fingernails over the Rolodex for the card of a female private detective in the Paris region.
"Non." The woman waved the card away. She's persistent, Aimée thought. And for a brief moment, as the breeze fluttered through the open window and a siren whined outside on rue du Louvre, Aimée sensed that she was being subjected to a curious scrutiny. It was as if this woman was measuring and found her, like the office, wanting.
Aimée glanced at her Tintin watch impatiently. "As I told you-" Aimée's cell phone beeped. "Excuse me," she said and dug in her bag, found it, and listened to the message. The client she expected was in a taxi ... minutes away.
"The owner of this establishment knew my mother," the woman said. Her accent was now more pronounced.
Even after all this time, former clients called expecting to find him, Aimée thought sadly. "You're referring to my father, Jean-Claude Leduc," she said. "But he passed away several years ago." She used a euphemism instead of graphically describing his death during a routine surveillance in the Place Vendôme from an exploding bomb.
"Passed away?" The woman blinked. "And you're his daughter?"
Aimée nodded. "We've put the old case files in storage. Désolée."
"But you don't understand." The woman tilted her head to the side, gauging something, ignoring Aimée's words. Her fingers picked at the strap of her straw bag.
"Understand? Mademoiselle, I am waiting for a client who is due any moment." She checked her phone again. "Make an appointment, and then I'll see what I can do for you."
"That's him, non?" The woman pointed to the photo behind Aimée's desk. It was of her father caught in time: younger, his tie loose, grinning. The one Aimée kept to remind her of what he'd looked like alive, not the way she'd last seen him, charred limbs on the morgue's stainless-steel table all that remained after the explosion.
"Our father," the woman interrupted. "I'm your sister, Aimée."
The phone fell from Aimée's hand.
"But I don't have a sister."
"It took time to find this place, to make sure," the woman said. Her voice quavered, her confidence evaporating. "And to summon the courage to come here. I need to talk with you."
Aimée steadied herself. "There's some misunderstanding, Mademoiselle. You're ..."
Stunned, Aimée looked for some resemblance in the almond-shaped eyes, the honey color of the woman's skin, the shape of her mouth: that full pout of the lips, those white teeth. Could her father have had another child?
"You have proof? I'm sorry, but you walk in here and claim you're my sister," Aimée said. "How do I know you're ... that what you claim is true?"
"You're shocked," said Mireille, her voice urgent. "Me too. I had no idea until three weeks ago. During the coup d'état, I had to leave Haiti. I only found out...."
"Haiti?" Aimée shook her head. "Papa never went to Haiti."
"Your father and my mother had a relationship in Paris, before you were born," the woman said. "I can show you photos."
Aimée felt the air being sucked out of her lungs. Glints of afternoon light refracted from the prisms of the chandelier into myriad dancing lights. It was as if she'd been hit by a shockwave; words froze in her throat.
The wire cage elevator whined up to the office landing and rumbled to a halt. Her client had arrived to tell her the verdict. Would Morel, a prestigous private bank, extend Leduc Detective's data security contract?
"I never knew my father," said Mireille. Her mouth pursed. "Was it a one night stand or a grand amour ... who knows?"
"That's not like Papa. He wouldn't have fathered a child and just-"
"Mademoiselle Leduc?" A smiling middle-aged woman in a navy pantsuit knocked on the frosted glass panel of the open door. "Am I disturbing you?"
"Of course not, Madame Delmas, please come in." Aimée forced a smile, stuck her trembling hand in her pocket, and gestured to a Louis Quinze chair with her other. "The data analysis report's ready."
Perspiration dampened Aimée's collar. "Why don't you start reading the report while I see my visitor out, Madame?"
Mireille paused next to Aimée on the scuffed wood of the landing, a vulnerable look on her face. "Maman went back to Haiti. I don't know if he knew she was pregnant."
A cough came from inside Aimée's office. One didn't keep a client like Madame Delmas waiting.
The woman calling herself Mireille Leduc gripped Aimée's hand hard. Hers was as hot as fire. A thin red string encircled her wrist. "Mesamey," she said.
"I don't understand," Aimée said, her voice low.
"Mesamey is the Kreyòl word ... I don't how you say it in French. I've only been here a week. Would you say surprised?"
Aimée felt a frisson course through her. "But what do you want?" she asked.
"Please, I lost my papers. I didn't know who else to ask."
"Papers ... you mean you're illegal?"
Mireille nodded. "But I can prove we're sisters. I am in some trouble. I thought my father could help. This man who's been helping me gave me a file, and...."
Madame Delmas's chair scraped on the floor, a fax machine whirred, and the office phone rang.
"I'll wait for you in the corner café," Mireille said. "You'll meet me, Aimée?"
What else could she do? Aimée nodded. Her eyes followed Mireille down the dim spiral staircase until the last glimpse of her curly hair disappeared. She could still feel the heat of Mireille's hand on hers. Then she realized she didn't know her address or even how to reach her.
Time to get to the bottom of this, Aimée thought, emerging from her building into the warm air of the rue du Louvre. The limestone building façades, with their wrought iron balconies and pots of geraniums, shimmered in the late-afternoon sun. Aimée's heels clicked over the uneven pavement as she passed the newspaper kiosk plastered with posters proclaiming "New leads in Princess Di's death." September 1997, two weeks after Princess Di's accident in Pont de l'Alma, and the media wouldn't quit. Nom de Dieu, she thought, why couldn't the paparazzi let the poor woman rest in peace?
A group of laughing schoolchildren raced by, joking about their recent vacations. September was time for la rentrée, the return to work and school, when the city emerged from the summer doldrums like a dog shaking its wet fur.
Aimée hurried into the corner café, searching for Mireille. Only a few tables by the window were occupied: two financial types in business suits huddled in conversation, an old couple with their dog arguing over an article in Le Soir, and the locksmith in his overalls, his heavy-lidded eyes semi-closed, at the counter.
Suspicion mingled with disappointment. The slim thread of hope that Mireille might really be her sister began to fray. She'd always wanted a sibling, and for a moment she'd hoped it was true. Yet how naïve to credit a stranger who walked into her office, promised proof, and vanished.
Grow up! she told herself. She had to grow up. And she repressed the longing she'd always felt for family, any family.
"Bonsoir, Zazie," she said to the young girl with red hair and a splash of freckles who smiled at her from behind the counter she was stocking with Orangina bottles. "Has a woman asked for me? Curly hair, light caramel-colored skin, wearing a denim skirt?"
"Un moment, Aimée." Zazie helped out in the café after school while her mother tallied accounts and her father took deliveries. Frugal and close-knit, in true Auvergnat fashion, the whole family worked together.
"So was she here, Zazie?"
Zazie shrugged. "Better ask Maman, she'll be back in a minute."
Maybe Mireille had stepped out for a moment but would return. Aimée tapped the toe of her high-heeled shoe on the tile floor, which was littered with sugar wrappers and cigarette butts. She wanted proof of the truth of the woman's claim. If Mireille was working a scam, expecting money, she'd be disappointed, Aimée thought, as she considered Leduc Detective's finances.
"Your usual, Aimée?" Zazie asked.
"Make it a double." Aimée hiked her bag up on her shoulder and nodded to the locksmith next to her, who was nursing a beer. The faint stain of twilight tinged the trees and traffic leading to the Pont Neuf. She scanned the outdoor pavement: only anonymous passersby and Maurice, the one-armed veteran news vendor, selling newspapers at the kiosk.
"So you're working tonight, Aimée?"
There was a click and bubble of steam as the dark liquid dripped into a demitasse cup. Tacked on the wall were children's stick-figure crayon drawings.
"I've got a new client." Aimée twisted the blond highlighted strands and wisps of her shag-styled hair behind her ears. Part of her new look, responsible for a big check to the stylist at the coiffeuse.
She scanned the café again, looking through the windows to the shadowy street. Still no Mireille. Her impatience mounted.
"Try to remember, Zazie. Was there a woman with sunglasses, big ones? A tall woman with light brown curly hair?"
Zazie lifted the demitasse of espresso onto a small white saucer. "Lots of people come in here." She hefted a thick textbook onto the counter. "I've got a geography test tomorrow."
Aimée unwrapped a sugar cube, stirred her coffee with the little spoon and wished she had a cigarette to go with it. Too bad she'd quit. Second time this month.
Zazie chewed her pencil, then leaned forward as if confiding a secret. "Aimée," she said, "I may have a case for you."
"Really?" Aimée smiled.
"Oui. Listen, this boy, Paul, sits in front of me in geography."
Aimée nodded, noticing the hint of mascara on Zazie's lashes. Zazie must be twelve or thirteen now. "You like him, Zazie?"
Zazie blushed. "Paul's father went out to buy cigarettes and never came home."
A child's cry came from somewhere in the café's kitchen.
"His father left one day, Aimée. Just like that!"
Aimée averted her eyes. Like her own American mother, a seventies radical. A mother who hadn't been home when eight-year-old Aimée returned from school that rainy March afternoon. Just a note telling her to stay at the next-door neighbors'. And an empty armoire.
"Paul thinks his father is a secret agent who had to go on a mission."
More likely a deadbeat dad who skipped out.
"Could you find Paul's father, Aimée?"
"That's the flics' job, Zazie," she said. "Paul's mother should talk to them."
Through the café's window Aimée saw a flash of denim. But this woman was blonde. Not Mireille.
"Paul won't go to school. He's waiting for his father...." Zazie paused, wide-eyed. "I saw his mother at the market, crying. You're a detective. Can't you find him, Aimée?"
Aimée sighed, seeking an excuse. The sharp ache she herself felt, a knife-edged pain-wanting to know what had happened to her own mother-never stopped.
Zazie pushed another espresso toward her. "Paul's got an allowance; he can pay you. Please, Aimée," she pleaded.
"No promises, Zazie. It depends on whether my friend still works at the Commissariat."
She pulled out a black lipstick tube, swiped Chanel Red across her lips and blotted them with a café napkin. Again, Aimée scanned the people walking by on the pavement. Still no Mireille.
She heard another cry, more piercing this time, followed by the shattering of plates.
A moment later, Virginie, Zazie's mother appeared, hefting a baby on her on an ample hip. Smears of honey glistened on the baby's cheek.
"Do you remember a woman who came in here looking for me, Virginie?"
Aimée repeated her description.
Virginie brushed a wisp of hair from her forehead. "Last time I'll serve her!" Virginie's eyebrows shot up in disapproval. "She didn't say a word, just pointed her finger."
Aimée kept her mouth shut.
"Like she's too good to talk with the likes of me, like I'm the hired help," Virginie said.
"Pointed to what, Virginie?"
Virginie reached for a café napkin wedged between the pastis and Dubonnet bottles on the shelf in front of the beveled mirror.
"She left this for you." Virginie's mouth puckered in a moue of distaste.
"You mean that lady, Maman?" Zazie said, her eyes wide. "The one in the raincoat? She ran away."
Aimée leaned over the counter. Sometimes she got more sense out of Zazie than from her harried mother.
"What happened, Zazie?"
"The motorcycle pulled up." Zazie gestured out the window to a small alley. "She looked scared. Then she ducked behind the counter. I saw her bend down."
"Like she was hiding?"
"Then she ran away. Out the back door away from the motorcycle." Zazie shook her head. "I didn't know she'd been waiting for you, Aimée."
The napkin was marked with a damp brown circular coffee stain. She turned it over and saw her name written on it. She unfolded the napkin and read the scribbled words "Loge B. 2A5C, 61 rue Buffon." The Latin Quarter.
"Aimée?" Zazie asked, tugging her sleeve. "Do you know her?"
"Not as well as I'm going to, Zazie." She palmed a ten-franc note into Zazie's hand. "Big sisters have it tough. Treat yourself to an Orangina."
Aimée turned the ignition key of her faded pink Vespa scooter. She stepped on the kickstart pedal, popped into first gear, and edged the Vespa into the traffic crawling past the Louvre's Cour Carrée and into a cloud of diesel exhaust from the Number 74 bus. She wished she'd worn jeans instead of the Dior pencil skirt and heels.
She drove by pet shops and bouquinistes, the secondhand book stalls on the banks of the Seine. On her left, Notre Dame's gray shrouded, scaffolding-wrapped hulk was in the midst of a seemingly eternal cleaning. As she crossed the Petit Pont to Saint Michel, the Seine beneath flowed khaki-green flecked with copper in the last rays of the sun.
On the Left Bank she bypassed tree-lined Boulevard Saint Michel heading up rue Saint Jacques, a part of the ancient pilgrimage route to Compostela in Spain. She turned left past the Sorbonne, where from the Middle Ages until the nineteenth century classes had been taught in Latin. The streets narrowed in the Latin Quarter, one of the oldest of Paris, home to churches, Roman ruins, universities, the Grandes Ecoles, book stores, and, now, research facilities. It was still an intellectual center. The cobbled passages were traversed by students spilling out of small bars tucked into medieval two-story timbered buildings. Strains of remix from the DJ du mode wafted in the warm air, along with the fumes from the cigarettes everyone smoked.
By the time she had woven her scooter through the warren of streets below Montagne Sainte-Geneviève, darkness had descended. Her knuckles ached from squeezing the brake levers on the steep inclines. All the way here, she had wondered who Mireille had run from and why she'd left an address on a napkin for her.
Aimée located 61, rue Buffon, opposite the nineteenth-century Natural History Museum, which stood in the leafy gardens of the Jardin des Plantes. Number 61 was a worm-holed wooden gate in a crumbling stone wall plastered with old, curling advertisements posted despite the faded DEFENSE D'AFFICHER warning. A small weathered plaque said OSTEOLOGIQUE ANATOMIE COMPARÉE. It was the comparative anatomy research facility. She pulled out the napkin and entered 2A5C on the digicode keypad.