Murder in the Rue De Paradis (8 page)

BOOK: Murder in the Rue De Paradis
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Tuesday Afternoon

A MESS, RENÉ thought. The hum and clack of the rails, the shunt of steam from the old locomotive accompanied his thoughts. It took three hours and three trains to reach the nodding, cypress-lined Loire river valley where he could just make out a glint from a château’s blue-tiled roof on the horizon.

Looking out the window at the light brown dappled herds of Charolais cows grazing on wheat and the purple-hued grasses, he berated himself. He felt guilty for leaving Aimée.

He hadn’t seen her so shaken since her father’s death. He couldn’t understand how Yves, a fling when he breezed into town, a bad-boy type who wouldn’t commit, could affect her so. She wasted her time on those types. But who was he to think ill of the dead. He’d only seen a corpse once, never hoped to again. Was he jealous of Yves?
Non,
he knew his place. That didn’t mean he liked it or didn’t hope deep down in some little corner of his heart that it would change.

More cows now dotted the green fields.
Eh, ça va la vache,
the palindrome with letters the same back to front, wound through his head. That second message on Aimée’s phone— what if he’d guessed right and the killer had hit Yves’s redial and knew Aimée’s number? She wasn’t safe.

He punched in her number and got a busy signal. He called Saj, his former student, a hacker, who’d taken over for him while he was away. He needed to check in; he had to attend to the business.


Allô,
Saj?”

“René, you’re on vacation,
non?
” He heard something in Saj’s voice. Seagulls squalled in the background.

“Where are you?”

“La Rochelle,” said Saj. “But don’t worry, I’m monitoring the systems.”

“Everything okay?”

There was a pause. The seagulls’ cries were louder.

“I guess you should know, the Fountainbleu account’s compromised,” said Saj. “Sorry. I traced it to loose lips.”

Only gone a few hours and already trouble! René’s shoulders sagged. He planned all he could; set up appropriate fire-walls, barriers, password encryption; but it only took one savvy caller requesting confirmation of account data and a newbie to take the bait and give away sensitive information. He saw it all the time.

“I’m on it,” Saj said. “I’ve already installed new protections on the firewall. But I guess it’s best that you’re not surprised on your return.”

These attackers did their homework; culled names and e-mail addresses from company directories, contract service suppliers, and social-engineered information. Often they called at lunchtime when only a single harried analyst manned the fort who would succumb to the line “I’m about to place your departments’ order but Lynette’s gone, and I’m out of the office. Shoot me the password.”

It worked more often than not. And it just took one mistake to reveal sensitive account data. Education, René thought, you had to educate them.

“We can’t stop attacks, but we can insist that no one confirms data online without permission. Thanks for letting me know, Saj.”

“I’m on it, don’t worry,” he said.

“Meantime Saj, keep me updated, okay?”

He tried Aimée again, got her voicemail, and left a message cautioning her to change her number and call back with her new one.

By the time he hung up, the train was pulling into Amboise station where his mother stood on the platform with an eager smile.

Tuesday Afternoon

NADIRA CHECKED HER watch, then Paul’s rapt expression as he watched the darkened Theatre Gymnase’s children’s performance. In this 1820 jewel of a theater, under a dome whose interior was decorated with murals, they sat upon red plush seats, surrounded by gilt-edged curlicues like cake decorations. Paul’s attention focused only on the hip-booted pirate onstage brandishing a sword.

Perfect. On plan.

She nudged Paul. “I’m going to call your
maman.

Paul nodded, his eyes never leaving the stage.

She leaned over to Carla, who organized the four-year-old playgroup’s events. Carla’s skintight V-neck shirt plunged. Nadira recalled the Koran’s words: W
omen are to lower their gazes
. . .
be modest, and draw their veils over their bosoms.
Nadira was glad that the darkness covered her momentary expression of disgust.

“Must make an important phone call,” she whispered. “I’ll meet you in the lobby.”

“But I’ll need your help if one of the children needs to go to the bathroom,” Carla said. “Remember, they drank so much juice.”

“Of course,” Nadira smiled. “But Madame Delbard had some last-minute changes in her schedule.”


Shhh
.” Several of the children put their fingers over their lips.

Before Carla could respond, Nadira pointed to her cell phone and rolled her eyes mouthing “Madame Delbard.” If Madame Delbard ever phoned, it was to ask her to run an errand to the drycleaners. But Carla didn’t know that.

Out in the lobby lined with plaques commemorating the pantheon of former performers—Sarah Bernhardt, Cocteau, and Yves Montand—Nadira checked the exit, then the time again. Twenty-nine minutes until the end of the act. Another seven to ten for the children to assemble in the lobby. To accomplish her mission, she would have to hurry.

She went through the arched glass doors and, walking at a fast pace, covered the seven blocks of rue du Faubourg Poissonnière. It was time for prayers, but she couldn’t perform the ablutions of washing her face, feet, and hands, rinsing her mouth, and running a wet hand through her hair. She’d make do. She pulled out a moist towelette, wiped her hands, bent as if she’d dropped something and ran it across her sandalled feet. Passersby jostled her.

As she walked, she inclined her head. To those on the street, it looked like she was window-shopping. But she’d calculated the direction of Mecca, and in her heart, she prayed. She prayed to strengthen her resolve in following Allah’s way, enlightened by her mullah. Say the prayers in your heart, the mullah instructed, and accomplish your mission.

She entered the courtyard on rue Lafayette. In a doorway she donned a gray scarf and long sleeved blouse, and felt more comfortably clothed. She opened the door of the Institut Kurd.

“I’d like to join the center,” she said, gazing to the side in respect to the woman behind the reception desk.

“Welcome! You’d like a student membership?” asked the woman. Leyla, Resource Manager, it said on her name tag. She wore a summery flower-print dress with no scarf. She grasped Nadira’s hand.

Startled, Nadira recoiled.

Leyla might have been the twin of the nurse who’d discovered her, a shell-shocked nine-year-old, in tattered rags, searching the rubble for her parents’ bodies. The past opened up for Nadira. Leyla’s open smile, that same cinammon tinge to her complexion, her plump cheeks, those brown warm eyes crinkling in the corners. Nadira bit her lip, remembering the nurse’s calm voice as she removed the shrapnel from Nadira’s leg and daubed her wounds with antiseptic to prevent infection, which nevertheless spread. The Western-trained doctors saved her from the gangrene that threatened her life.

Nadira hadn’t thought of that in years. Nor of the little charm the nurse had given her, an enameled blue horse. The one thing she still had.

“You bit your lip; here’s a tissue,” Leyla said.

Such kind eyes.

Flustered, Nadira felt rooted to the floor. Somehow she managed to speak. “Does membership entitle me use of the library?” she said, handing over a Sorbonne student ID with the name Shareen Labout.

Leyla smiled. “Of course. But we offer many cultural programs and events as well. Tomorrow Jalenka Malat’s speech is titled ‘To veil or not to veil: Muslim women’s modern role in today’s society.’”

Nadira averted her eyes, then managed a grin. “But I know of her work. How lucky.”

“The Kurdish Woman’s group asked Jalenka to address them earlier,” Leyla said, leaning forward. “We’re hoping she’ll find time to speak to this smaller group too, so there will be a chance to meet her. Do check back. We’re not publicizing it.”

Nadira nodded, her training kicking in. Even better.
“Merci.”

She marshaled her thoughts. Leyla, with her direct gaze, French clothing, and perfume, wasn’t at all like that nurse, she decided. After Nadira’s leg healed, the nurse had brought her to the mosque’s orphanage school for girls and introduced her to the mullah. The nurse was dedicated to jihad and had helped her understand the mullah’s teachings.

Nadira completed the application form. They were alone in the bright reception area. While Leyla typed up her card, Nadira looked around at the photos of Kurdistan on the wall.

“Will Jalenka speak in here?”

Leyla gestured toward a pair of closed doors. “It’s the largest space we have, only a little theater, but . . .” Leyla smiled. “We’ll fit in as many as we can.”

“Would you mind if I look at the library?” Nadira asked. “I have to hurry to babysit, but I’d like to check on a book.”

“Upstairs and to the right.”

Nadira climbed the stairs and paused. She heard Leyla’s voice on the phone. Instead of entering the library, she followed a narrow dark wood-paneled hallway to the left, glad she’d worn sneakers that made no sound on the carpet. She passed a man working in an office but she kept going, winding to the left. She found the door labelled WC. Inside the cubicle was a porcelain chain toilet, toilet brush, and extra roll of pink toilet paper. She reached into her bag for a knife. At first, the metal-framed window resisted. After several tries, and a generous application of WD40, she pried it open. She pulled the toilet chain so the sound of the flush would cover the creaking of the window.

She stood on the seat. On the floor below, she saw a bank of three windows, all open, facing the small courtyard. The farthest window had a clear view of the stage and podium. Perfect.

She studied the angle then took out her tape measure, calculated the distance from the window ledge to the door, then peered up to the roof. Always have an alternate plan. She closed the window, brushed off the window ledge, swept the old paint chips into her palm and stuffed the chips in her pocket.

At the desk downstairs, Leyla handed her a membership card, now printed and laminated.

Nadira said, “They didn’t have the volume I need. But tomorrow I’ll try again.
Merci.

Twenty-nine minutes later, Nadira stood in the theater lobby again, in her hand a bag from the nearby boulangerie. “Who’s hungry?”

A swarm of four-year-olds with open hands engulfed her.

Nadira held out the bag of still warm
pain au chocolats
.

“You’re a lifesaver,” said Carla.

Nadira just smiled.

Tuesday Afternoon

THE POLICE HELICOPTER hovering overhead whipped up a vortex of leaves at the Metro Louis Blanc. Aimée tasted hot dust, dry grit stung her ankles. People in the crowd spilling onto the pavement shielded their faces. It was 3:00 P.M., and she was here to meet Rouffillac. Citing an emergency, he’d called and changed their meeting place.

Ambulances blocked the street. The helicopter dipped, then its
thupts
trailed off. A reek of burnt rubber and smoke clung in the oppressive heat. Horrified, her eyes were transfixed by the bloodstains smearing the green metal art nouveau Metro posts.

Another Metro bombing, the second since July. Low moans and mumbling in Arabic came from an old woman with a torn head scarf. Her face contorted in fear, her gnarled brown hands gripped a shopping bag to her chest as she hunched by the Metro kiosk. A female
flic
put her hand on the woman’s shoulder, spoke in her ear, and then gently took her arm and led her to an ambulance.

From the look of things—black powder burns on the pavement and scurrying bomb-squad technicians—much of the scene had been secured.

A man stood by a unmarked Peugeot staring at her. A short, wiry man with brown-gray hair curling around his ears, who emitted a tensile energy.

“Mademoiselle Leduc?”

She nodded.

“We’ll talk there,” he said, motioning toward a florist shop behind her.

She followed him, stepping over the pink and orange rose petals fallen in the entry, and past a gigantic arrangement of blue delphiniums.

“Monsieur?” The florist looked up, setting down her clippers. She wore a smock; sprays of roses sat next to strips of gauze bandage on her work table. “Do the last roses of summer interest you?”

“Brigade Criminelle business. May I use your shop, Madame?”

“Bien sur
,” she said, her look expectant. “The medics needed some bandages cut. . . .”

“In privacy, if you don’t mind?”

Without a word, she picked up the bandage strips and left the shop. The mingling of floral scents and damp earth filled Aimée’s nose.

“What happened?” Aimée asked.

Instead of answering, Rouffillac leaned into the microphone clipped to his lapel. “
Oui
?” he listened, his expression hardening. “Sodium chlorate . . . weed burner and sulfur . . .
explosif
. . . you’re sure?”

Sulfur or
drogene
, she knew, was the yellow powder sprinkled on the pavement by her neighbor to discourage pooping dogs. And weedburner was available at Vilmorin or any garden supply store. Common everyday ingredients, but combined they made a big bang. A lethal one.

“It should have been worse, thank God they did a half-assed job. . . .” Rouffillac said, shaking his head and turning away.

Aimée didn’t catch the rest. The multicolored rose arrangements in the shop window framed the scene of now-diminishing horror outside. The last ambulance pulled away. Metro workers in blue-green vests hosed down the steps.

“Recount for me your movements and your last conversation with Yves Robert,” Rouffillac said, consulting a small notepad that had materialized from his shirt pocket.

Caught off-guard, she cleared her dry, sore throat. She felt hot and cold; her neck was flushed; the unmistakable signs of a fever.

“I didn’t expect to see Yves,” she said. “This on-again, off-again thing we had . . . well . . . always saying good-bye at street corners.” She twisted the Turkish puzzle ring on her finger. “But this time he asked me to marry him.”

Rouffillac looked up from his notes. “Mademoiselle, do me a favor and make this day a little better than it’s going, eh? Start at the beginning.”

And she did. He looked up only once, when she faltered describing the blood at rue de Paradis and the little girl’s words.

“So the last time you saw the victim, Yves Robert, was before 2 A.M. in the morning?”

“I woke up then and he’d gone.” She handed him the
Le Monde
she’d found behind the mattress. “Look, when I went back to search the loft, I found this article he’d underlined, it could bear on—”

“Not a smart thing, to take a victim’s items or to search the loft, Mademoiselle. You’ve tainted evidence and made my boys’ day harder.” His mouth soured and he stepped so close she could smell the old-fashioned pomade on his hair. Didn’t do much good to his curls, she noticed. For a small man, he moved with surprising speed and energy.

“But, of course, you realize that Yves was working undercover on a story.”

“ ‘Realize,’ Mademoiselle?” His voice lowered. “I investigate and gather evidence following procedure and the regulations prescribed by the Judiciare.”

“But you have informants in the quartier,
non
? Ask them. . . .” she paused. “No doubt you’ve consulted with his colleagues at Agence France-Presse—”

“That’s not your concern.”

Of course they had informants and had contacted the AFP. Why wouldn’t he confirm it to her?

“The Brigade has an 87% case solution rate, higher than any other European capital,” he said.

She could almost see his chest puff with pride.

“I intend to better that, Mademoiselle, I don’t need your theories or interference.”

The typical swagger, the elitism notorious in the Brigade. And Rouffillac embodied it. Granted, only the
crème de la crème
were accepted in its ranks, but it didn’t make them easy to deal with.

“You’ve got a lot going on, I know. . . .”

“We’re on high alert,” he told her, leaning over to speak into his lapel-microphone again, but all she caught was the word Alpha.

“Commissaire Morbier, my godfather, works at Groupe R in the Brigade,” she said. He only worked there once a week, but maybe that would soften Rouffillac up. “I’m familiar with—”

“And I’m aware of your background, Mademoiselle,” he interrupted. “Your cell phone, please.”

Sharp; he’d caught the reference to the last message from Yves’s number on her cell phone.

A plainclothes man appeared at the door, and Rouffillac snapped his fingers, like a overbearing patron to a waiter in a resto. The man took her cell phone and disappeared into a blue van outside.

“But, of course, you’re pursuing other suspects besides Romeo?”

“That’s all for now, Mademoiselle,” he said. “I may have more questions. If so, I’ll call you.”

In true Brigade fashion, he revealed nothing.

“But you’ve got my phone.”

“The officer will return it when you leave.”

He strode to the door. He wanted to brush her away, as if she were an irritating fly.

“So you’re bugging my phone?” She followed, her heels crushing the rose petals on the floor.

He gave her a tight smile. “Mademoiselle, we’re recovering the evidence necessary to our investigation which you’re required to furnish.”

So far, she’d learned nothing.

“But how can I reach you?”

He slipped a card into her waiting hand. JEAN-MICHEL ROUFFILLAC, TERRORIST DIVISION, BRIGADE CRIMINELLE 06 42 78 09. “Leave the investigating to us, Mademoiselle Leduc. You understand, don’t you?”

And then he got into a waiting car which drove off. The plainclothes officer stepped from the van and handed her cell phone to her. She opened the back cover and checked the SIM card. In place, no obvious bug. But maybe they’d cloned it.

Great. A hostile Brigade Criminelle investigator who made it clear that he brooked no “interference” and Yves’s body cold in the morgue. She walked past the florist from whose shop came the scent of the last roses of summer.

CHILLS RACKED AIMÉE as she stood on the black-and-white tiled landing of her 17th-century apartment on Ile Saint-Louis. In spite of the heat, her nose dripped and all she craved was a hot bath. She prayed the antique boiler would cooperate.

She opened the door to her stale, empty apartment. No welcoming lick from Miles Davis, her bichon frise who’d spent the night at the vet’s for shots and teeth-cleaning.

In the bedroom, redolent of the day’s heat, she kicked off her shoes and scattered her clothes on the parquet floor, then made her way to the bathroom.

Every bone ached and she couldn’t think straight. She tossed in eucalyptus salts and dried lavender, then turned on the cracked porcelain faucet. A shudder from the pipes, then a stream of hot water and fragrant steam wafted from the claw-footed tub. She couldn’t get sick now. There was so much to do.

She drank bottled Volvic water, swallowing several pain- and fever-reducing Doliprane. From the medicine cabinet she took, and cut the edges off a brown glass ampoule—a homeopathic cold remedy her grandmother had sworn by. She poured the golden liquid into the tub, slid into the hot water, and put a towel over her head so she could inhale the vapors. Her mind whirled; Yves’s unease sitting at the window, Romeo the dead junkie hustler found with Yves’s belongings, the woman in the chador. She lay there she didn’t how long. The water had cooled when she heard her cell phone ringing from the other room.

She ran to it with the thick towel wrapped around her and reached it on the sixth ring. Evening light filled her bedroom.


Allô?

“Gerard Drieu with Agence France-Presse,” said a deep voice. “Mademoiselle Leduc?”

Her hand shook. If only she could rewind the past twelve hours. She stood dripping on the wood floor, toweling off.

“Thank you for returning my call. I’m afraid. . . .” she hesitated. First she had to find out if he knew Yves. “I need to speak with Yves Robert’s colleague and found there are two Gerards. Did you work with him?”

“Of course. I’m his admin boss. Sorry for the delay; I just picked up my messages.”

“That’s okay. When did you last see Yves?”

“‘See’ him? But he’s supposed to be attending a meeting that started half an hour ago.” Pause. “Is there something wrong?”

“A meeting?”

“What’s going on, Mademoiselle?”

“Hasn’t the Brigade Criminelle informed you of his murder?” she said.

Something dropped in the background. There was a muffled sound, as if a hand had been placed over the phone.

“Murder?” She heard the crinkling of papers. “
Mon Dieu!
But who are you and how do you know this, Mademoiselle?”

She took a deep breath. “I identified him at the morgue.”

She heard papers shuffling.

“I’ve got so many messages, I haven’t had time to check them. Here . . . yes, a message from Brigade Criminelle.”

“I need to speak with you in person.”

Her duvet beckoned and she wanted to curl up and sleep, but the Doliprane had taken effect. She could function. She had to. She needed face time with this Gerard and the news bureau staff to discover what Yves had been investigating; especially if he hadn’t yet spoken to Rouffillac. . . . Who knew what leads they weren’t following? Forget Rouffillac’s warning, she told herself.

“This . . . you’re sure?”

“As I said, I identified Yves’s body at the morgue,” she repeated, “since no one responded from your office. Place de la Bourse, right?”

“I’m shocked, at a loss what to say. . . . Do they have a suspect?”

“Past tense. And the wrong one,” she said. “Please, can we meet? Say in thirty minutes?”


Mais oui,
in the lobby,” he said and hung up.

She had to get herself together. She toweled her hair dry, did a quick kohl outline of her eyes, swiped Chanel Red across her lips, and pinched her cheeks for color. She stepped into the nearest thing hanging in her armoire, a black linen V-neck Givenchy with a gathered waist; the torn-off label hadn’t hidden its pedigree from her at the flea market. She grabbed her jean jacket. Dust motes caught in the evening slants of twilight drifting onto the floor. She stuck a bottle of Volvic, more Doliprane, and a scarf into her bag.

As she turned to leave, the red light of the fax machine on the secretaire blinked, then a whirr signaled transmission. She hesitated, debating whether to stop and read it. If it came from Saj concerning the Fontainbleu account she could deal with that later. But when she glanced over, she noticed the header on the sheet grinding out: OFFICE OF THE STATE DEPARTMENT OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA.

Surprised, she leaned forward and checked the time. Three A.M. in Washington, D.C., early for the State Department; but then her contact there worked odd hours. No cover letter, but a smudged photocopy of an old passport application bearing the name Sydney Leduc, her American mother who’d left when Aimée was eight years old. She gripped the edge of the secretaire.

Six months ago, she’d asked her contact to check, but she’d never heard back. She’d figured he’d found nothing and put it out of her mind. Her hands holding the fax shook.

Persona non grata
—ON WORLD SECURITY WATCH LIST— was stamped on the top. Over the subsequent blacked-out lines another stamp “Pursuant to the Official Secrecy Act, contents sealed for fifty years.” Underneath this was a UNESCO Paris headquarters badge dated 1968. The year Aimée’s mother had left her and her father. And that rainy March afternoon came back to her, the empty apartment she had returned to after school. No note, the armoire empty of her mother’s clothes, only a chopstick on the floor. The one her mother used to wind back her long hair. More than twenty years ago. Knowledge of whatever was under the blacked-out line would have to wait another twenty-two years. Aching disappointment flooded her.

The whirring ceased: end of transmission. The fax machine lay silent. The one lead to her mother had ended on this paper.

That little breath of hope that went nowhere. Aimée ran her fingers over the smudged words. Now she’d never know what had happened to her.
Persona non grata,
on the world security watch list. Her American mother was still wanted— that is, if she was still alive.

She crumpled the paper, about to throw it in the trash, then smoothed it out and opened her bottom drawer. The drawer that held her father’s death certificate, the one photo of her mother—carmine red lips holding Aimée as a baby at the baptismal font—the drawer of the past. She had to put this away. Forget and move on. But she didn’t know if she could. Then she glanced at the time; Drieu was waiting. She put the crumpled paper in the drawer and closed it.

BOOK: Murder in the Rue De Paradis
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