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 wellbeing 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. It is sad and frightening but has nothing to do with Aimée—until Zazie, the 13-year-old daughter of the proprietor of Aimée’s favorite café, disappears. 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.
Praise for the Aimée Leduc series
“Transcendently, seductively, irresistibly French.”
“Wry, complex, sophisticated, intensely Parisian … One of the very best heroines in crime fiction today.”
“So authentic you can practically smell the fresh baguettes and coffee.”
Read an Excerpt
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 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 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 LYCEE 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 Ile Saint-Louis a man had followed her after school. He’d offered her an ice cream at Berthillon’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. “Mon Dieu, 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. “Attention! 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. 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 blackand-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.
“Verez,” Virginie said. “Do me a favor and make two cafés crèmes for those ladies down the counter? And help yourself to an 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 express décaféiné, she followed Virginie behind the zinc counter to the unventilated back kitchen. Steaming heat came from the stove. “You’re working by yourself tonight?” Aimée asked.
“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.”
“She said she was going to study with Sylvaine tonight.”
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. “Zut, 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.
Aimée recovered the phone, shook it hard, and wiped it off with her scarf. The line was still live. “Allô, we’re looking for Zazie. Isn’t she studying with Sylvaine?”
In the background she heard crying.
“Monsieur, what’s going on?” The phone clicked off. Her heart thudded. Non, non, she screamed inside. “What did he say, Virginie?”
Virginie’s shoulders were shaking. “An ambulance, but I didn’t understand.”
Aimée fought her terrible feeling. “Neither do I, but I’m going to find out if Zazie’s there.”
“I’m going with you …”
Aimée hugged Virginie. Held her tight. Let go and forced a smile. “And leave a café full of patrons to serve? What if Zazie comes walking through the door?” She hitched her bag on her shoulder. “Do you trust me?” Virginie nodded. “Good. Your place is here. Let me see what’s going on, okay?”
She was out the door before Pierre looked up, hurrying as fast as she could, feeling awkward clutching her bowling ball of a belly. Her damn kitten heels kept catching in the pavement cracks. A taxi passed. Full. Then another. Panting for breath, she tried to wave it down. No luck. No bus in sight. At the corner she saw a taxi parked near the crosswalk. Her shoulders heaving, she leaned through the window.
“I’m off the meter,” said the driver, lighting a cigarette.
“Already did my last run.”
“Then how about fifty francs in your pocket?”
Perspiring, she grabbed her wallet. There were damp rings under her arms. “Overlook the regulations. I’ve got to get to a crime scene.” She pulled out her father’s police ID, which she had doctored with a less-than-flattering photo of herself. “Now.”
Inside the taxi she read him the address from the card of Sylvaine’s parents’ cheese shop on rue de Rochechouart. “Extra if we get there in ten minutes.”
He hit the meter. “I’ll cut over to rue Lafitte. Faster.”
Zazie’s face flashed in front of her. Those freckles, the red curls escaping from her clip, those determined eyes.
“Still on the job, eh? When’s the baby due?” October. “Not soon enough.”
“Wait till the contractions start,” he said, “then you’ll sing another tune. My wife did.”
It never ceased to amaze her how strangers commented on intimate details of her pregnancy, even touched her stomach in the boulangerie without so much as a s’il vous plaît.
Traffic slowed to a crawl on rue Lafitte. She tried to calm her nerves. Maybe she’d jumped to conclusions, overreacted. Think, think where Zazie might have gone on her way home from Sylvaine’s. Maybe she’d visited her friend Mélanie in the clinic? Zazie could be stuck on the bus in traffic. But who had called an ambulance to Sylvaine’s house, and why?
She needed to slow her jumping heart for the baby. Good God, hadn’t the doctor instructed against stress?
And René’s cell phone was going to voice mail. Of all times! But she left him a message to call her.
Seven minutes later the taxi turned onto rue de Rochechouart—a sloping street of Haussmann buildings with uniform limestone facades, grilled balconies potted with geraniums and street-level storefronts. The Sacré-Coeur’s alabaster dome poked up from behind the rooftops. Behind the taxi on the narrow street a block away, an ambulance negotiated its way uphill. She heard the squealing brakes from the arriving blue-and-white police car ahead. Fear flooded through her.
“Voilà, Madame, you made it in time,” the taxi driver said.
Not soon enough, she thought, and it was Mademoiselle. But she thrust a fifty-franc note in his hand. Added a twenty, hoping to bank some late-night taxi karma. She hefted herself up from the back seat, struggled to keep the heavy taxi door open on the hill. Just in front, two flics were getting out of their car. Horns blared, and the siren whined in the blocked traffic on the street.
If Zazie were hurt, she wouldn’t forgive herself for not convincing her to leave this alone.
She smelled the cheese shop before she got to the door, where a man wearing a long white apron paced. Aimée racked her brain for the father’s name. Remembered.
“You’re Georges, Sylvaine’s father?”
He looked up. Nodded.
His thick hands flailed in the air. “Sylvaine needs an ambulance. What’s taking so long?” His entire face was pale.
“It’s coming. Where’s Zazie?” Aimée asked.
“My baby, my baby …” Tears ran down his face.
“Tell us what’s happened, Monsieur,” said one of the flics, nodding to his partner. The partner made for the door.
“Non, non, Sylvaine needs a doctor. Not you.” Georges blocked the flic’s way. He swung his fist and punched one in the face, knocked the other one down. Was he suffering shock, unhinged?
No time to deal with Georges. Something bad had happened. She had to quell her fear that Zazie might be involved. She stepped around the scuffling flics and into the fromagerie. Coolness emanated from the grey-and-white marble counters and the walls. She would bet each one of France’s 246 varieties of cheese was represented here; cheese filled the cases, displays, every available nook and cranny. The reek of ripe Roquefort made her stomach lurch.
Behind the counter hung a bead curtain leading to a refrigerated back room. The layout was like all old shops, and she followed the hallway leading to the upper-level living quarters.
Breathing hard, she took the narrow stairs to the first-floor hallway as fast as she could. On the dark, wood-paneled landing she grew aware of a woman’s low voice. Followed it past a parlor and down the dim hallway. “Madame?”
She saw a pink T-shirt and an unlaced sneaker on the hall floor. A mounting dread made the hairs on the back of her neck rise. Beyond, she saw into a girl’s bedroom. A woman in a smock—she took her for Sylvaine’s mother—crouched on the floor. “Excusez-moi, may I help?”
“Only the doctor can come in here,” she said, looking up, blinking rapidly. A nervous tic? A gold crucifix dangled from her neck over a white apron. Aimée looked around. “Isn’t Zazie here?”
“Zazie?” The woman looked confused. “You can’t come in. Sylvaine’s not dressed.”
The woman reached for a cloth. Behind her a young girl shivered on the wooden floor, the blanket over her torso not reaching her bare calves. Her jeans were bunched around her ankles. Her blonde hair matted wet to her face. She clutched a ragged teddy bear, her whole body shaking.
Horrified, Aimée noticed the crusted blood on her ankles, the smears on the floor. How could it be? Her mind raced.
Could Zazie have been right all along, that there was a serial rapist on the loose? But how could the flics let such a thing happen in this neighborhood, so safe and quiet? And why to this particular girl, this friend of Zazie’s, where Zazie was supposed to be studying tonight? Her fear almost overwhelmed her. It couldn’t be a coincidence.
Facts, she had to get the facts, not jump to conclusions. She had to calm her thoughts, get whatever information she could from this poor girl. She knelt down on the floor. “Sylvaine, did someone hurt you?”
A brief nod.
“It’s all right,” Aimée said, wishing it was. “You’re safe now. Where’s Zazie?”
“I’m cleaning Sylvaine up,” her mother said. “With some fresh clothes she’ll feel better. Won’t you, ma puce?” She took a washcloth to wipe the smears and blood off those small ankles.
Aimée cringed. Washing away DNA evidence—the last thing she should do. “Plenty of time for that, Madame,” she said, putting her hand on the mother’s shoulder. “We need to leave this. Just for now, okay?” She wanted to search the rooms for Zazie but didn’t dare to leave Sylvaine and her mother alone. What the hell was taking the medics so long? “Sylvaine, can you tell me what happened?”
Sylvaine’s body kept shaking. Her breaths were shallow.
The mother threw off Aimée’s hand, shot her an angry glare, tears streaming down her face. “Don’t tell me how to handle my daughter.” She stroked Sylvaine’s leg. She wanted to make it all go away. As if it could. “We can’t let people see her like this … Defiled.”
Aimée winced at the mother’s word choice. She noticed curled duct tape lying on the floor. Images flashed in her head of the little girl brutally restrained during the attack.
“Did Zazie come over to study with you, Sylvaine?”
But Sylvaine’s eyes had rolled up in her head. Convulsions wracked her, throwing off the blanket. Aimée saw red bruises on her chest.
She clutched her stomach, felt the bile rising. Where were the paramedics? She forced herself to feel for Sylvaine’s pulse. Weak and thin. Her wrist felt cold.
“Don’t touch her,” her mother shouted.
Aimée felt a stinging slap on her cheek.
“Make way,” shouted a medic, bearing the front of a stretcher in from the hallway. Finally. “Give us space.”
Aimée rubbed her cheek, watching the medics checking Sylvaine’s vitals. Her blackened left eye had swollen shut.
“Who let you in here?” a uniform with a clipboard asked her.
“I’m a family friend,” she lied. “We need to find a girl named Zazie—thirteen years old, curly red hair. She’s wearing jeans, has a black backpack …”
She motioned him to the side in the dark, paneled hall. Fading, pale light from the skylight fell in a rectangle on a music stand, which lay on its side in a pool of scattered sheet music.
“Sylvaine, the girl who lives here, has been raped. And Zazie, her friend, was here studying with her, and now she’s missing. We’ve got to search the apartment.”
Georges pushed past the flic. “Zazie never comes on Mondays,” he spat at Aimée. His eyes were wild. “Today’s Sylvaine’s violin lesson.” Georges pointed to the calendar pinned to the wall. The Mondays were marked by blue stickers in the shape of a violin. “That’s why we worked late in the shop—she wasn’t supposed to be home until … When I came upstairs …” His shoulders heaved.
Was there some mistake? Had Zazie lied?
“Maybe the lesson got canceled, and Sylvaine called Zazie,” she said, grasping at straws. “Are you sure she wasn’t here? Didn’t you see your daughter and Zazie come upstairs?”
He shook his head. “Non, Sylvaine always comes in through the side courtyard next door, not through the shop.”
“So you wouldn’t have seen Zazie, or the attacker, as they were coming—”
“We’ll take your report at the hospital, Monsieur,” interrupted the flic, tall and broad-shouldered with short black hair. He gestured to another officer, who escorted the parents down the stairs.
“You are?” he asked.
She flashed her PI badge.
“Ambulance chaser, eh?”
“Call me concerned,” she said. “You need to put out a search for Zazie—thirteen years old, red hair,” she repeated slowly. Maybe he would listen this time. “The girl who was supposed to be here studying with Sylvaine.”
“Didn’t you hear what the father said?”
Aimée shifted on her heels. “But look how distraught he is. He doesn’t know for certain what Sylvaine was doing this afternoon, and Zazie said she was going to be here. What if she’s hiding in the closet or in the cellar?”
“Our team will do a thorough search and question the courtyard residents to see if anyone saw anything. After we assemble the evidence …” He paused, checking his phone.
He wasn’t taking her fear for Zazie seriously. He would be of no help to her.
“What if she was here?” Aimée tried one last time. “What if your team can’t find her? Maybe the rapist took her …” But she couldn’t finish.
“Jumping to conclusions, Madame?” The knowing look he gave her round belly infuriated her.
“She’s a minor, not where she said she’d be. Her parents are frantic; she’s not answering her phone.”
“Sounds like a typical thirteen-year-old. Do you know how many calls like this I got today?” He looked up from his phone.
“If the girl is really missing, her family needs to make a procèsverbal de disparition at the Commissariat,” he said. “After the standard twenty-four hours.”
Quoting the rule book at her? Filing a missing persons report took time. Time they didn’t have.
He nodded to the arriving fingerprint tech with his kit. “Get dusting.”
Incredulous, Aimée wanted to shake him. “There’s a dangerous man, a rapist, on the loose, and a little girl is missing. Don’t you understand? Zazie’s never late—”
“Madame, you’re not being sensible. You’ve been told this girl, Zazie, wasn’t here. Chances are she’s not answering her phone because she’s out with a boyfriend or friends her parents don’t approve of. The parents enlist us, and she comes walking in the door an hour later.”
“Monsieur, I’ve known Zazie since she wore diapers. She’s not like that.”
“Open your eyes. She’s a teenager, boys and parties everywhere.”
He lowered his voice. “If she still hasn’t returned by tomorrow—after the mandatory twenty-four hours—her parents file the report, and the wheels start turning.”
If Aimée’s worst fears were right, tomorrow would be too late, she thought with a sinking in her heart.
As they spoke, she stared at the school exercise books and a violin bow scattered on the duvet. She noted the blue backpack, but not Zazie’s black one. Could the flic be right? Could Zazie have lied to her parents?
A walkie-talkie squawked in the hallway. A uniformed flic tapped the officer’s arm, leaned forward and said something in his ear. The officer’s fingers stiffened on his tie.
He consulted his cell phone again and punched in a number.
Moved to the corner, his broad shoulders hunched. She stepped closer, listening.
“We need le proc,” he said. The Procureur de la République, the public prosecutor.
Aimée heard a finality in his voice. Saw the look in his eyes when he flipped his phone closed.
“Her heart gave out in the ambulance,” he said. “Be careful where you walk. It’s a murder scene.”
Aimée gasped. “Mon Dieu.” She’d witnessed the girl’s last moments. Her insides wrenched. “Then you need to treat Zazie as a missing minor right now.” She flipped open her phone, scrolled to show him Zazie’s number. “She’s using her uncle’s phone. Track the phone pings from this number.”
“You seem convinced she was here.”
“Zazie was following a man she thought had raped her classmate.” She battled the sob rising in her throat. “We can’t just wait for something to happen to her.” If it hadn’t already.
“Her father needs to make a report at the appropriate time. Like I told you.”
“What if Zazie witnessed Sylvaine’s attack?” she said, frantic to make him take action. “Can you rule that out?”
“Our priority’s the attacker. The murderer,” he corrected himself. “Now if you’ll remove yourself …”
“There’s no waiting period to search for witnesses,” Aimée said desperately. “Organize a search for Zazie as a witness to the murder.” He didn’t look convinced. “My father was a flic …”
“Is that supposed to impress me?”
“To let you know I’m no stranger to procedure,” she said. Or your time-consuming bureaucratic regulations, she thought, but she kept that back. Time to name drop. “Commissaire Morbier’s my godfather.”
“Isn’t he on leave?”
Morbier, a man who lived for his job, taking leave? “And I’m Marie Antoinette.”
Something shuttered behind his eyes, and Aimée was gripped by doubt. Did he know something about Morbier she didn’t? Was that why he hadn’t returned her calls?
Her phone trilled. Virginie. Aimée’s knuckles whitened, clenching her phone. What should she do?
Then something inside her kick-started, parted the hormonal fog. She would fix this herself. Zazie wouldn’t end up like poor Sylvaine. Not while Aimée had breath in her body. Time was crucial; it must have been three or four hours since anyone had seen Zazie.
“Found her, Aimée?” A nervous timbre in Virginie’s voice.
“Virginie, listen to me. First say that you’ll listen and just do what we ask, okay?”
“What’s happened to Zazie?”
“We don’t know. Please listen.”
Screaming. In the background she heard Pierre calming Virginie.
Then he got on the line.
She caught the eye of the flic, mouthed please. He shrugged.
“Pierre, I’m handing my phone to a police officer. You’ll need to give him whatever information he asks for.” She handed her phone to the flic standing by her.
Two minutes later, after a one-sided conversation, he passed her back her phone.
But he’d clicked off.
“We’ll do what we can,” said the officer. “Now we’re waiting for the Brigade des Mineurs.” The squad who investigated crimes against juveniles. “Give your statement downstairs. Leave your number with the officer so I can contact you. Don’t forget to give him Zazie’s parents’ number, and Zazie’s, too.”
Not the reaction she’d hoped for, but at least he’d taken her seriously. Or so she hoped.
Procedure hobbled the police. But not her.
Outside, quiet had descended over the now-shuttered street.
Nothing open, no shopkeepers to question. She turned to the courtyard entrance beside the cheese shop, deserted except for the arriving crime-scene techs tramping up the rear stairs. The windows of the small, two-story ateliers overlooking the courtyard were dark, and the concierge didn’t answer.
An old man shuffled into the courtyard lugging shopping bags from Franprix. “Bonsoir, Monsieur,” she said. “I’m looking for the concierge.”
“That’s my daughter. She’s away.” He set the bags down on the cobbles and inserted a key in the door.
“Did you see Sylvaine, the cheese-shop owners’ daughter, this afternoon?”
“Sylvaine . . .”
“Sweet girl,” he interrupted. “Today? Think so. Usually she comes through here …”
“And her friend, a red-haired girl? Did you see her?”
He shrugged. Adjusted the hearing aid in his ear. “Speak up, will you? But I can’t say—it’s the World Cup, you know. I’m glued to the télé.”
But she couldn’t give up. “Think back a few hours, if you can, Monsieur. Did you notice anyone or hear anything here in the courtyard?”
“Like I said, I was watching the télé.”
“What about the other residents?”
“Residents? They’re on the beach. Like everyone else. I’m only here because my daughter talked me into collecting the mail for her while she’s gone.”
“Merci, Monsieur,” she said, disappointed. For now she’d follow the only other lead she had.
Her phone rang. René at last.
“Where are you, Aimée?”
“En route to the NeoCancan bar,” she said. “In Pigalle.”
“What? In your condition?”
She had to hurry. “I can’t explain now.” Glanced through Zazie’s notes. “Meet me at Thirty-four rue Pierre Fontaine.”
Cara Black is the author of thirteen books in the New York Times bestselling Aimée Leduc series. She lives in San Francisco with her husband and son and visits Paris frequently.