Murder in Pigalle by Cara Black
Nothing weighs on us so heavily as a secret.
—JEAN DE LA FONTAINE
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, heightening 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? There was so much to choose from this week.
She shouldered her secondhand Birkin bag, prenatal vitamins rattling against the mascara tubes and Beretta summer catalogs. “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.”
“Allez, 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 frosted-glass 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 breath.
“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 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-YEAR-OLD 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.”